Stories of Struggle: ‘I have to choose between eating and heating’

Stories of Struggle: ‘I have to choose between eating and heating’

“I often have to make the choice between eating or heating.”

That’s the stark choice faced by some families who feature in a new report outlining the gulf between household income and the minimum essential standard of living (MESL), highlighting how parents make personal sacrifices to make sure their children are clothed and fed.

Stories of Struggle — Experiences of living below the Minimum Essential Standard of Living was commissioned by the Society of St Vincent de Paul and carried out by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. It highlights how, in both urban and rural areas, many families are caught short of money, meaning a constant battle to meet household bills.

According to the report: “Children’s needs were prioritised by families across the board; but it was more difficult for parents, in this group, to meet their children’s physical, social and psychological needs. In terms of social inclusion and participation needs, children had no or limited activities.

In rural areas, more children were partaking in free or low-cost sporting and cultural activities such as Gaelic football with their local GAA club and Scouts. However, the regularity of their attendance was contingent on whether or not their families could afford the petrol required to bring them there.

The report, launched yesterday at an event attended by Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty, defines MESL as “one that at a minimum level meets physical, social and psychological needs”. Researchers conducted 30 in-depth interviews with parents, 15 from urban areas and 15 from rural areas. More than half had been living with an inadequate income for six to 10 years. Social welfare was the only income for almost half of the households in the study which also found while all families experienced difficulties, half said they simply could not make ends meet.

People within that group had gone without sufficient food or heating, “and regularly did not have enough money to cover their housing costs or household bills”.

They were continuously making sacrifices, and parents were aware that their children’s needs were not being met, which they prioritise over their own,” said the report.

Other groups were not quite so pressurised but still said they felt “trapped” by having inadequate income.

As for reasons for their situation, the report said: “The high cost of housing impacted families’ household income, and was the single most cited driver of income inadequacy, followed closely by family break up, unemployment and low pay.”

Coping strategies included prioritising certain items, going without, and coming up with alternatives such as buying larger quantities of cheaper, often processed food in the place of healthy home-cooked meals.

The report found such stresses often had health implications and recommended social welfare payments and the national minimum wage should be benchmarked against the cost of a MESL alongside investment in high-quality, affordable, and accessible services, among other measures.

Quotes reveal the financial pressures

Some quotes from people interviewed for the ‘Stories of struggle’ report:

  • “I used to have life insurance but when the rent increased I had to let it go... everything except basic costs are out of my grasp.”
  • “We only buy clothes for the child, and we wait until there are holes in something before we replace it.”
  • “I’m not coping well; I’m going from day-to-day with no or little food some days... our gas will be turned off soon because we’ve no money.”
  • “We get paid on Monday and often have no money left after paying the bills and doing the weekly shop. I worry how we will get through the week, how can we look after a child?”
  • “I work nights and my parents mind my children while I’m working, they spend the night at their grandparents. Then I sleep while they’re at school, but I get little sleep, especially at the weekends and school holidays.”
  • “My husband has work and we’re getting FIS, my friend’s family have FIS and it makes a huge difference... full-time employment for at least one parent with FIS is my family’s way out.”
  • “When I add up my expenses, I know I cannot take my kids on a treat, there’s just not enough money.”
  • “A car is essential where we live because it’s a rural area, a long distance from the town.”
  • “I can’t afford to fill the oil tank. I can fill a barrel with kerosene from time to time, or get €50 of briquettes or coal. It’s a big home but very cold and [my daughter] is asthmatic.”
  • “It’s a constant struggle and a lot of suffering; I keep going by focusing on the children. It’s a great stress when the unexpected happens, my house flooded in 2010 and the insurance covered the costs but now I don’t have any insurance... stress, anxiety, I can’t sleep. My daughter can sense I’m worrying. I try to cover it up, which adds to the stress.”

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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