Archive for the 'Employment' Category

The most radical social welfare in decades – We can’t afford to get it wrong!

Social Welfare reform and a single welfare payment for all people of working age must address poverty traps, access to supports and services and the availability of jobs

The Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, has signalled the most radical change in the social welfare system for decades.  She proposes to replace seven of the most important payments with a single payment rate and common conditions for eligibility.  This process has already begun with the changes to eligibility for the One Parent Family Payment and payments for those on Community Employment schemes. The Department has also signalled that detailed proposals will be put to the Troika in March.

EAPN Ireland supports the general principle of a single payment on condition that the correct services and supports are put in place.  Equally, we are not opposed to activation measures if these supports and services are in place and if appropriate work is available.  However, as the Department itself has acknowledged, to make such changes in current conditions risk pushing some of the most vulnerable people in the country further into poverty and creating even greater poverty traps preventing people taking up work.

Background to these proposals

In November 2010 the Department of Social Protection published a Report on the desirability and feasibility of introducing a single social assistance payment for people of working age The overall proposal is that everyone age 18-64 years on this social welfare payment would be directed to the support or services they need in order to return to work or other education or training opportunities. The report proposes that all payments be aligned to the Jobseekers Allowance payment and apply to all new applicants for social welfare supports whether they be a person with a disability, a lone parent, qualify for farm assist, etc. The report proposes that carers not be included in the single payment but recently there are suggestions that they will be excluded.  

The 2010 report clearly states that the changes should only be brought in if they reduce poverty and social exclusion for people and make work pay. It also recognises that the development of supports and services is necessary to this.  It outlines clearly the major loss of income for most groups provided separately under the current system.

Since the report was published there have been consultations with different organisations including those representing people affected by the changes. It is clear from these consultations that while no organisation is opposed to the introduction of a single working age payment there are major concerns particularly in relation to the capacity of the state to provide the necessary supports and services and in relation to the current lack of jobs and opportunities for people to take up.

Therefore, organisations, including EAPN Ireland, have asked that no changes are made that would reduce the current level of current income supports until such a time that the services and supports outlined in detail in the report are put in place.

EAPN Ireland proposals to Oireachtas Committee

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education is now preparing a report on the single working age payment.

The Europe 2020 working group of EAPN Ireland (membership below) has made a submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee.  The submission makes it clear that we support the idea of a single social assistance payment for all people of working age, provided that the necessary services, supports and pathways to employment are put in place.   

The Department’s 2010 report which laid the basis of the current proposals for a single payment acknowledges that, without policy changes in other areas, most people moved onto Jobseekers Allowance will suffer a loss of income.  The Minister needs to spell out how these supports and services will be put in place before changing the payments or eligibility criteria. 

We are concerned that changes have already been made in Budget 2012 and that an implementation plan will be presented to the Troika in early April without any clarity on how the concerns expressed in the Department’s own report and in consultations will be addressed.

The current system allows for appropriate policies to be developed over time to meet the needs of particular groups. It would be a negative step from a policy point of view if the appropriate responses to group needs are lost in the implementation of a new single payment based on a simple template of Jobseekers Allowance.  

The services and supports in place to address the needs of those currently on the Live-Register are already under pressure and the National Employment and Entitlement Service which is being established will also not have the resources to address this. Adding even greater numbers to this system, including people facing a complex range of barriers, will only overburden an already struggling system, which is in the process of reform.

It is clear from our members’ experience and from studies that the vast majority of those who would be impacted on by the introduction of a single payment want to work but are prevented from doing so due to the barriers outlined in the Department’s report.

We are concerned that if the reforms are not correctly implemented they will increase the negative attitude towards groups such as lone-parents and people with disabilities who are often attacked, despite the evidence, as being unwilling to work.

There are currently very limited jobs available. The reforms to the welfare system must therefore go hand in hand with a strategy to create decent jobs. 

 

Poverty Traps

It is vital that any changes to the system remove, and do not deepen, poverty traps.

We have a number of very specific issues and concerns.

  • The Department of Social Protection’s 2010 report clearly acknowledges the loss of income for different groups if the single payment is introduced without other changes.  The current differential supports were put in place precisely to cover costs of services and supports such as childcare. The loss of income under the proposed changes would in particular apply to carers, to those in Community Employment and those going to work who qualify for income disregards. If the services and supports are not provided it will result in poverty traps for these families forcing them to meet these costs from more limited resources or to leave or not to take up a job or a place on a Community Employment Scheme.
  • Income disregards play an essential role in addressing the cost of services related to going to work for those receiving these payments. This includes the cost of childcare and afterschool care for lone parents and the costs incurred by having a disability such as transport.  As highlighted above, the loss of income disregards will immediately impact on the capacity of people to be able to take up employment. In this situation the changes might appear at first hand to be a saving for the Department but the actual impact would be to act as a barrier to people moving off social welfare supports and is therefore an actual increase in costs to the state.
  • While a reform of the means testing system for secondary benefits would be welcome, the introduction of a single payment based on Jobseekers Allowance would result in the loss of secondary payments for people under some of the existing payments. This would include the Household Benefit Package and free travel for people on Disability Allowance, Carer’s Allowance and the Blind Pension. The loss of these supports would be detrimental for the people affected in light of the extra costs of disability.
  • The role of Family Income Supplement (FIS) needs to be explored as it could help to overcome some of our concerns.  However, member organisations are aware of major waiting times to get this payment so if it does become part of the single working age payment support system, it will need to be easier to access.

With the exception of those undertaking caring responsibilities, the majority of those on social welfare payments want to work. They would welcome a system of accessible services which addresses their needs and supports them to access a decent job, so allowing them and their families a decent income. The implementation of a single working age payment in a considered way, with all the elements being developed together, allied with a job creation strategy, has the potential to make a key contribution to this. However, in the current climate, with cuts to essential services and little if any work opportunities, now is not the time. Cutting social welfare supports and imposing even greater conditions on people to engage with the system when there are so few opportunities will only have negative consequences for people and undermine the Department’s own goal of ensuring that all people of working age have sufficient income and opportunity to participate as fully as possible in economic and social life.

The Government must re-engage in real consultation and not continue to press forward with changes at a time when such changes will only result in greater poverty for the groups involved making it even more difficult for them to take up work and training opportunities.

Membership of the EAPN Ireland Europe 2020 Working Group includes Age Action Ireland, Congress Centres Network, Disability Federation of Ireland, Dublin Employment Pact, EAPN Ireland, Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, Irish Traveller Movement, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, National Adult Literacy Agency, National Youth Council of Ireland, National Women’s Council of Ireland, One Family, OPEN and SIPTU.

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Fresh Perspectives: New TDs on the development of a more social Europe – Simon Harris TD

This is one of a series blogs by new TDs to encourage an active debate between political representatives, EAPN Ireland members, and the broader public on the future of the European Social Agenda, and the role of the new Dáil in debate on Europe.

Simon Harris is a Fine Gael TD for Wicklow and was elected to the Dail for the first time in 2011

My generation of young Irish people have seen many benefits from our country’s membership of the European Union. The freedom to travel anywhere across our continent, to experience new cultures, to see investment in many infrastructure projects in towns up and down the length and breadth of the country and even tackling mobile phone roaming charges – these are just a few of the tangible, simple benefits we have seen from Europe. However, it is clear that as a people we all too often feel removed from the European project. Issues concerning us are discussed many, many miles from here yet how engaged with this process are we as a people? As a new TD, I have come to the Dáil full of energy, enthusiasm and a desire to play my part in reforming and rebuilding our country. It is clear that an important part of this reforming exercise will be examining how we interact with our European neighbours.

This year in the Dáil we held the first ever special sitting to mark Europe Day. We heard from our MEPs, from the European Commissioner, from the Taoiseach and from other party leaders about Europe, Ireland and our relationship. This was a worthwhile first step but needs to progressed and developed further.

When one reads a newspaper these days, our relationship with Europe seems dominated by talk of banks, bailouts and bonds and whilst there is no doubt these are vital and topical issues, our relationship with Europe must go beyond that. I want to see more discussion, debate and exchange of ideas about social issues. I want us to learn from each other on how we can best tackle social challenges. We need to be exchanging ideas on best practice in education, in health, in disability and on the environment.

Recently in the Dáil I highlighted the fact that at a European level it had been agreed to have a pan-European helpline for missing children yet years later we have yet to put this in place in Ireland. This is just an example of where we need to seek much greater follow through on what is agreed at a European level being delivered on in our own country.

There is an onus on those of us in the Oireachtas to keep abreast of what is happening in the EU, the European Parliament and the European Commission. We need to constantly look at new ways to make this scrutiny of European issues more seamless. But there is also an onus of all of us – on every Irish citizen – to get involved. If the European project is to be a success in what it strives to achieve, it needs not just bureaucrats, institutions or directives but rather it needs citizens of Europe onboard and in tune.

The commitments in the Programme for Government are welcome and I think we’ve gotten off to a good start on this but a huge body of work remains to be done and I look forward to playing my part.

Europe was never meant to be just about banks – it is about so much more than that. We must all strive to redress this imbalance!
Simon Harris TD

 

Creating Greater Income Equality


Unequal societies are detrimental to our economy, to society in general and to our individual health and psychological welfare.[1] The wider the gap that exists between high and low earners the greater the prevalence of these negative effects. As Irish levels of income inequality are increasing[2] it is important that we take a comprehensive look at this issue as part of the current debate on what type of society we want in the future. It is essential that, as a first step in the process, a minimum essential standard of living is researched, implemented and monitored in order to ensure that we have a just and sustainable foundation from which to implement greater income equality.

As things exist the income floor is set by the social welfare system. This is a subsistence level of income that does not permit a life of dignity. Rather than lower the minimum wage or subsistence level provided by the Social Welfare we should focus first on establishing what exactly it is that the basic minimum income needs to be in order to ensure dignity and the opportunity to live a socially inclusive life. Sweeping the rug from under those on low incomes is not acceptable; instead we should secure their footing on the income ladder and use that as a sound foundation from which to bring improved wages. This would be more in line with what is just, equitable and socially sustainable. It is also an economically sound approach, as those on lower incomes redistribute the majority of their income back into the economy.

A minimum essential Standard of Living

Especially in these times of economic crisis social welfare transfers need to be protected therefore cuts in Government spending should not be targeted at those on the lowest incomes. In addition, in reconstructing our economy new mechanisms for redistributing wealth in a more egalitarian way can be found. The Vincentian Partnership describes a Minimum Essential Standard of Living as one which meets a person’s physical, psychological and social needs. They have devised minimum essential budgets for six household types, ranging from a lone parent with two children to a pensioner couple. These budgets are based on components such as health related costs, household services, personal care and a range of items necessary for social inclusion and participation, with approximately 2,000 items, goods and services being evaluated. Based on data collected in 2009 the minimum essential budgets per week for these household types stack up as follows: €280.81 for a female pensioner living alone, €588.26 for a lone parent with two young children, and €264.22 for a single adult male. Social welfare payments for these same family types are €269.02, €575.31 and €196 respectively. This highlights the importance of maintaining the social welfare at the current rates and increasing them if possible in order to ensure there are no shortfalls, such as that experienced by young male adults who have a weekly deficit of €68.22, which will increase to €76.22 after the introduction of the 2010 Budget.

When a household has a manifestly low income which is considerably less than that required for a Minimum Essential Standard of Living there can be no justification for measures which plunge them deeper into poverty and debt. Other choices are possible.”[3]

In 2009 the Vincentian Partnership also supported the need to protect the National Minimum Wage at its present pre-budget rate of €8.75, as those earning this rate and working 37.5 hours a week still encountered a shortfall of €49.28 a week (if living in rented accommodation) against what the Vincentian Partnership essential budget indicates. As will be discussed, the prices of basic goods and services have in fact risen over the last year, and whilst rents have in general declined this is mainly at the upper end of the rental market.  Thus there are increased difficulties for those earning the minimum wage to survive. The Government’s proposals to reduce this further, in the above scenario by €37.50, would result in a shortfall of nearly €90 a week and €360 a month. In addition the plans to introduce property and water taxes mean that those who will be hit the hardest are those with the least ability to withstand such fiscal reductions.[4]

The minimum wage should be at a level to ensure that every citizen can reach their basic expenditure costs and not be a tool with which to appease employers, the IMF or the EU. It is more important than that, it is the difference between a life of poverty and one of dignity for thousands of people. It also begs the question why the issue of reining in high pay has not been foremost on the agenda? This would have a myriad of positive effects; create more equality in our society, which is better for everyone and lessen the cost of business for companies. It could also create less risk-taking as seen in the financial sector where large bonuses were connected to short-term profit making.

Increases in the price of a number of basic goods

The importance of this is highlighted in a survey conducted by Age Action which found that between the dates of January 2008 and July 2010 the price of a number of basic goods have in fact risen throughout the recession. Increases can be seen in electricity, solid fuel and bottled gas meaning that the average cost of home heating has risen significantly. Other basic goods/services such as healthcare and travel have also seen price increases, for example; GP fees have risen by 8.15%, dental fees by 17.7%, petrol by 11.2%, whilst car insurance has risen on average by 14.8% and health insurance by 32.8%.[5] These figures reveal the increased pressure on low income earners. The combination of these factors will result in the majority of those dependent on social welfare being unable to live with basic dignity.

Wage Inequality

A national debate needs to begin on issues of rights, a social floor and equality in the context of social welfare legislation, and bringing those on lower and higher incomes closer together. The proposed cuts to social welfare payments and the minimum wage will only exacerbate the problem of pay inequality and its social ramifications. Social Justice Ireland has examined the increases in payments to those on social welfare and those in high earning political positions from 1986 to 2010, which highlights the extent of the unjustness of the proposed cuts to those already faced with poverty. The take-home weekly pay of T.D.’s for example rose by over six times more than that of someone in receipt of social welfare[6]; surely the answer to where to reduce spending is to reduce the wages of those who benefitted the most rather than vice versa, thus increasing equality and ensuring that no person on the brink of poverty is pushed over the edge. It is unacceptable that some of Ireland’s most wealthy and powerful groups are not even involved in the government’s debate on where to cut spending.

This shocking disparity between the wealthy and poor in our society, and our blasé attitude to its existence and detrimental impact, was brought to the attention of current debate in the Irish Examiner on the 6th of December last year. This article detailed the extraordinary wages of senior members of our semi-state bodies, who earn more than the leaders of major country leaders, including Barack Obama. The Chief Executive of ESB earns over €700,000 a year, way above what is received by any other public office holder, anywhere, and way above what is necessary to have an extremely high standard of living. It is wage disparities such as this that have led to the culture of risk-taking, money grabbing and overall dissatisfaction with life that is rife in developed countries such as Ireland. While it is welcomed that the Government eventually took cuts to their wages and pensions in the budget it is unacceptable that those surviving on the very minimum, and it could be argued that many are indeed not receiving the minimum required to have an acceptable standard of living, are to have their social welfare cut by a further 5%, the minimum wage to be reduced by €40 a week and taxes and charges on lower income families to be increased.

Conclusion

An opportunity to implement an equitable income structure now exists, and should be implemented before our recessionary lessons are forgotten. We need to decide as a nation the future direction of our society and change the pro-rich culture of the past to one which provides first and foremost the infrastructure to maintain every citizen’s right to equality, dignity, and economic and social security. A 2009 Behaviour and Attitudes Poll commissioned by TASC found that 85% of adults believe the government should take steps to reduce income inequality,[7] while a more recent MRBI poll conducted by the Community Platform found that 82% of the respondents agreed that the Government should introduce a wealth tax. The Governments planned budget cuts are a complete contradiction of this view and will go a long way to increasing rather than decreasing income inequality. The initiative now needs to be taken to start the essential process of introducing greater equality and sustainable progress for our society and for our economy, starting with the introduction of a minimum essential standard of living. This is an achievable goal which will have an immeasurable benefit.

 


[1] Wilkinson. R and K. Pickett, “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better” Allen Lane Books, 2009.

[2] Johnston, L. “The Rising Tide that forgot to lift all Boats: poverty, inequality and the Celtic Tiger”, Limerick Student Journal of Sociology, Vol 1(1), 2009, p.6, available at http://www.ul.ie/sociology/socheolas/vol1/1/Louise%20Johnston.pdf, accessed December 2010.

[3] Vincentian Partnership, “Pre-Budget Submission 2010”, September 2009, available at http://www.budgeting.ie/images/stories/Publications/pre_budget_submission_2010.pdf, accessed November 2010.

[4] Based on calculations for a single male adult aged 25+, Vincentian Partnership, “Pre-Budget Submission 2010”, September 2009, available at http://www.budgeting.ie/images/stories/Publications/pre_budget_submission_2010.pdf, accessed November 2010.

[5] Age Action Ireland, “Pre Budget Submission 2011” available at http://www.ageaction.ie/sites/default/files/pdf/Prebudget%202011%20briefing%20documents_0.pdf , accessed December 2010.

[6] Social Justice Ireland, “TDs take-home pay rose by €980 a week while social welfare rates rose only €144 over past 24 years”, December 2010, available at http://www.socialjustice.ie/content/tds-take-home-pay-rose-%E2%82%AC980-week-while-social-welfare-rates-rose-only-%E2%82%AC144-over-past-24-year, accessed December 2010.

[7] McDonagh, T., “Hierarchy of Earnings, Attributes and Privilege Analysis” , TASC 2009, p.2, available at http://www.tascnet.ie/upload/file/9644%20HEAP%20BOOKLET(1).pdf.

Are One Parent Families the Undeserving Poor?

Frances Byrne is CEO of OPEN. A former board member of the European Anti-poverty Network (Ireland) and past Deputy Chairwoman of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Frances has worked in OPEN since 1999 and has represented one-parent families in national and international fora. In the 1990s she worked for a local partnership company and one of OPEN’s local lone parent groups. Prior to that Frances worked at an NGO in San Francisco which advocated for residents of nursing homes.

A very affable and well-qualified researcher was at pains to point out to OPEN recently that yet more figures showing the poverty of one-parent families in fact reflect the relative position of those families measured against those with two parents.  They (the numbers) needed to be understood in terms of the importance of the presence (or absence) of a second breadwinner.  In other words, “Your people will always be behind everyone else in income terms and your organisation needs to lobby for proper, public services to help redress the balance.” On the face of it, advice which OPEN could/should accept, however the picture about our families is far more complex and has to be seen through a peculiarly Irish lens.

A sweep through the history of the income support payments to our families is one which is fraught with reminders of ‘the way we were’ as a society – the Deserted Wives Benefit, the Prisoner’s Wives Allowance, the Unmarried Mothers Allowance were all designed to meet specific needs, undoubtedly by a caring system attempting to respond appropriately to observable poverty. Their titles served to identify their recipient’s circumstances and to reinforce the economic dependence of women on men.  The payments were eventually amalgamated into the Lone Parents Allowance in 1990 and then re-branded and reformed as the One-parent Family Payment (OFP) in 1997.  The payment is neither gender-specific nor revealing of the personal history of the claimant and is also paid to widows and widowers with dependent children. It is important to note though that there has remained the concept of ‘an adult dependent’ in Jobseekers payments.

The Department proposed further reforms to the OFP in 2006 and these have been painfully slow in getting implemented and have been themselves subject to change. For example the ‘Brennan proposals’ recommended the introduction of a Parental Allowance for all low income families, regardless of marital status of parent(s); this has now been abandoned by government, for economic reasons, although it was favoured by the current Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection in its most recent report.  As things stand from April of 2011 until 2016 the Department will phase in an age limit (14 years) for the youngest child for those eligible for the OFP.  Although the late Minister Brennan included all parents, no matter what their relationship or marital status, Minister Hanafin, followed by the current Minister introduced a caveat: the new system will apply to all new claimants from next year except those who have been bereaved, who will continue to be eligible if their youngest child is older than 14 but not over 18.

OPEN was informed that this was an act of compassion. Indeed it was originally intended to include only those who had been previously married. Ultimately in the Bill which passed this summer it was extended to unmarried partners too.  It is important to point out that this was not requested by any NGO working on these issues.

The decision to extend compassion to the bereaved but not to those whose partner had been imprisoned, who had separated or who had been deserted was not on foot of intense lobbying. It was put in place simply to bring meaning to a view about deserving and undeserving families within the Department, we assume?

Views like these are not confined to government departments.  Mike Soden, formerly of the Bank of Ireland, now of the Central Bank Commission decided for reasons which are not clear to call repeatedly in media interviews for the abolition of social welfare payments to unmarried lone parents.  Mr. Soden presented his case without once using accurate facts and figures or on any occasion actually explaining how or where he received the expertise, wisdom or indeed the mandate to make such pronouncements.

OPEN, and others, have been at pains to communicate for years the true picture about one-parent families, all of our families.  It is complex but the facts are readily available from the Department of Social Protection, the Central Statistics Office, the Office of the Minister for Children & Young People and others. For example: less than 3% of those on social welfare are aged under 20; 59% of unmarried lone parents were in a committed relationship/co-habiting during their pregnancy; 58% of us have just one child and I could go on.

What seems to be at the core of the Department’s ‘compassion clause’ and perhaps inside the mind of the former banker is the notion of ‘choice’; that somehow if you choose lone parenthood, you are not blameless, so why should you receive state support?  If we follow this logic, then lots of people who set up home with someone they had doubts about, who then have children should not receive any or as much income support as others.  Is this really what we want? A social welfare system that interferes in people’s lives to satisfy itself in some vague, moral sense that the recipient’s family deserves support?  In our capitalist society we want a nanny state for some people then?

Returning to the friendly researcher’s advice about services; undoubtedly, as has been shown in countries where child poverty rates are low, the correct policy mix must include income supports and public services which are of high quality and universally available and availed of.  In Ireland we have however gone down a different road in terms of income support and therefore we have a system which has developed from the notion of a male breadwinner, and from that fall all kinds of anomalies and implicit notions of dependence and entitlement, or lack of.

Hand in hand we have not seen the proper public provision of services like early education & childcare as has been the case in other European countries, while here we favoured private service provision in the context of a low tax economy.

Late in the Celtic Tiger era, there were some efforts to fund community childcare, on which poorer families now rely heavily in our most disadvantaged areas with little or no middle class families using them – this is NOT the Nordic model!

This means that in our current context as both income and services get squeezed, the poorest families will suffer the brunt of what lies ahead.  OPEN’s concern is that we have already seen attempts in policy provision and in public discourse (on the shows on which Mr. Soden appeared, he received many supportive e-mails and texts) to divide the poor and those who rely on state supports from each other as well as from the beleaguered ‘tax payer’.  This is almost bound to worsen as the budget date nears.  For the record everyone who pays an electricity, phone or gas bill is a tax payer. As for PAYE, as the official statistics show, more than half of lone parents receive no weekly social welfare payment and of those who do, more than half work outside the home – evidence of a high motivation to move families out of poverty and to contribute to our society.

The most important statistic about our families which should inform policy development as well as public debate is this: 65% of child poverty in the Republic of Ireland is in one-parent families.  These are the children who should not be forgotten when decisions are made about our country’s finances.  These families do not deserve judgement or warrant blame because they are led by a lone parent, (previously married or not) or a poor parent, or a badly educated parent.  These families need support and solidarity, especially during an economic crisis.

OPEN is the national network of one-parent families. The organisation provides a range of development programmes and represents one-parent families in social partnership and elsewhere.  OPEN was established in 1994; member groups now support between 10,000-15,000 one-parent families per year.  The organisation is led by a Board made up exclusively of lone parents. Visit http://www.oneparent.ie

Workfare Won’t Work for the Unemployed

Aiden Lloyd is the Coordinator of the Irish Network of the European Anti-Poverty Network and a member of the board of the Society of Cooperative Development Studies Ireland (CDSI). He was previously the national community development & equality coordinator with Pobal, an organisation that manages social inclusion and equality programmes on behalf of Government and the European Union. He has been involved in a range of community development, local development and regeneration initiatives in Ireland and Europe.

It was reported over the weekend that the Minister for Social Protection, Eamon O’Cuiv intends to direct his Department to expand and develop existing work schemes as Activation measures that will link income supports and unemployment schemes. The existing schemes referred to are the Community Support Programme (CSP) and the Rural Social Scheme (RSS). Both of these schemes are presently implemented through Pobal by the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs. Both schemes will be transferred to the Department of Social Protection as part of the reorganisation of departments announced earlier this year.

The Community Support Programme (CSP) has been around for quite some time, albeit under various headings and government departments. It started out as the Social Economy Programme and was intended to fund third sector activity. Unfortunately, it was implemented rather badly and was subsequently transferred from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, where it was moulded into a community services initiative.

In his announcement, Minister O’Cuiv also confirmed that the employment services and community employment programmes of FAS will also transfer from the Department of Education and Skills to the Department of Social Protection. This indicates that FAS will be broken up and dispersed across a number of departments and agencies. This has significant implications for the community development sector who presently implement the relevant schemes (Community Employment and Jobs Initiative) and for local development companies who are formally contracted to deliver the Local Employment Service (LES).

Whatever about impending concerns for community and local development organisations, the greatest impact will be felt by unemployed people. Minister O’Cuiv’s initiative suggests that some welfare recipients will be subject to the condition that they may have to work for their welfare payment. Minister O’Cuiv’s announcement points to a particular interpretation of the concept of Activation, a somewhat ambiguous term that describes the linking of unemployment supports, training measures and active labour market policies. The idea of Activation is that individuals are socially supported (through welfare payments), retrained or up-skilled and then reintegrated into the workforce. Interpretations of Activation measures vary widely within Europe. Depending on one’s value perspective Activation can be viewed as ‘workfare’ – a belief that people should work for their welfare payment – or ‘flexicurity’ – a framework of measures that maintains income while retraining/redirecting the individual. In Sweden for example, levels of unemployment benefit are linked to previous salary levels with the proviso that this will only be maintained if the individual is active in seeking appropriate training and/or employment. The Swedes invest heavily in quality training and guidance to support these measures. The Swedes also actively manage their economy to bring about a social, as well as an economic benefit, so policies and objectives that support job creation are prioritised.

Minister O’Cuiv aims to use these schemes to provide unemployed people with short-term work activity, to up-skill them and ‘get them back into the mainstream workforce as speedily as possible’. He further contends that ‘maintaining people’s employability through regular work activity will be important for getting people back into the competitive economy’. This stance is revealing and is indicative of government thinking in terms of job creation for unemployed people. It would appear that the decision has already been made that any recovery will be dependent on a general improvement in the global economy and that the immediate priority is to manage matters until this recovery comes about.

Minister O’Cuiv’s interpretation of Activation thus appears to sit on the ‘workfare’ end of the continuum. Since the schemes outlined will only provide people with short-term ‘work’, have no meaningful training element and are focused on areas of activity (after-schools, environmental, child/elder care services, sports etc,) around which there is no economic support framework it is reasonable to assume that these schemes will be used as a mechanism to ‘park’ the unemployed until the global economy picks up.

That is not to say that schemes that promote useful activity in the community are without merit. There is some benefit to these schemes in preventing people sliding into long-term unemployment, as happened in the 1980s, but the kind of scheme suggested by Minister O’Cuiv is unimaginative and is likely to do a disservice to unemployed people without having a positive impact on the economy or job creation. It is also likely to maintain people in poverty or close to poverty, to undermine their confidence and to suppress their potential. Measures that promote, encourage and facilitate voluntary and community activity – particularly where skills are matched to need – would certainly receive a broad welcome from the community and voluntary sector, but to suggest that mandatory work in exchange for a liveable income will have a positive impact on anyone’s sense of ‘dignity’ is erroneous and deeply offensive to the 400,000 people who are languishing on the live register.

Work that helps to achieve social objectives should be valued and encouraged, there is much that needs to be done within communities to improve services and develop local infrastructure, but this should be undertaken as part of an economic strategy to develop these into viable economic sectors capable of creating new employment markets. This is precisely where an economic stimulus should be focused – on strengthening and developing the indigenous economy to lessen the dependence on multinationals to provide employment.

The Minister’s proposal also brings into question the very concept of work and the important psychological and material part it plays in people’s lives. From the beginning of time people have interacted with their environment through work; it is a natural inclination and does not fundamentally require coercion or incentivisation. It does, however, need to be meaningful, fulfilling and rewarding. In the context of modern industrial society, that reward or wage is the means whereby people support themselves and their families and enable their broader development and participation in the community.

Ideas to address unemployment are therefore useless unless they are linked to creative economic strategies. To put it bluntly, people should only be enticed to participate in measures that lead to jobs. If those jobs are not there, which they are currently not, then they need to be created. Unemployment is not the fault of the unemployed. It is a traumatic situation to bear, difficult for individuals and families to manage and should not be made any more difficult through the implementation of incomplete and regressive policies.

http://www.eapn.ie

Update: Nat O’Connor has written a very interesting post, also criticising the proposals on the Progressive Economy site.  Mike Allen from the Poor Can’t Pay has also started a discussion on their facebook page.


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