760,000 people in Ireland are poor. That’s one in six of us

That such a large proportion of our children are living below the poverty line has major implications for the education system, for the success of these children within it, for their job prospects in the future, and for Ireland’s economic potential in the long-term.

A fifth of children are at risk of poverty, either because their parents are on welfare, which is inadequate, or are working, but paid too little, writes Seán Healy

ONE in six people in Ireland lives on an income below the poverty line. Based on the latest CSO data, that’s 760,000 people.

In 2009, 14.1% of the population was classified as poor. Since then, the rate has increased, although it has slowed in recent years, because of an increase in core welfare payments.

If we are to develop an effective anti-poverty policy, we must know who is in poverty. The retired and the ill/disabled, although at a high risk of poverty, involve smaller numbers than adults who are employed (the working poor), people on home duties (i.e. working in the home, carers), and children/ students.

Between 2006 and 2009, the numbers of people with jobs who were still living in poverty declined, while the numbers of unemployed people in poverty increased. This reflected a rise in unemployment.

The increase in poverty between 2009 and 2017 can be principally explained by the increase in poverty among people largely dependent on the welfare system, in particular the unemployed, the retired, and the ill or disabled.

Children are one of the most vulnerable groups in any society. Child poverty is measured as the proportion of all children aged 17 years or younger who live in households with an income below the poverty line.

Just under a fifth (18.4%) of children were at risk of poverty, according to the most recent CSO study. The child poverty figure has remained around this level since the first CSO SILC survey, in 2004. As of 2017, 18.4% equates to 230,000 children.

That such a large proportion of our children are living below the poverty line has major implications for the education system, for the success of these children within it, for their job prospects in the future, and for Ireland’s economic potential in the long-term.

One in every four children (23%) lives in a household that is deprived of two or more basic necessities. The number of children living in poverty who are also deprived (consistent poverty) stood at 8.8% in 2017; equivalent to 110,000 children. Like the overall child poverty figure, this rate has changed little since the first CSO SILC survey.

Child poverty is an issue of low-income families and its prevalence highlights the scale of such households across the state. Child poverty solutions are adequate adult welfare rates and better pay and conditions for working parents.

Child benefit is a key route to tackling child poverty. It is of particular value to those families on the lowest incomes. Similarly, it is a very effective component in any strategy to improve equality and childcare. How long more can we ignore these children and their living standards? How can poverty be reduced?

Social Justice Ireland believes that it should be a national priority to provide everyone with sufficient income to live with dignity. This minimum floor of social and economic resources would ensure that no person in Ireland falls below the threshold of social provision necessary to enable him or her to participate in activities that are considered the norm for society generally.

If poverty rates are to fall, Social Justice Ireland believes that the following are required:

  • increase in social welfare payments
  • equity of social welfare rates
  • adequate payments for children
  • refundable tax credits
  • decent pay for low-paid workers
  • a universal state pension
  • a cost of disability payment

Social Justice Ireland believes that government and policy-makers should:

  • acknowledge that Ireland has an on-going poverty problem
  • adopt targets aimed at reducing poverty among vulnerable groups, such as children, lone parents, jobless households, and those in social rented housing
  • support policy options that protect vulnerable sectors of society
  • before implementation, assess the social impact of policy initiatives that affect the income and public services on which many low-income households depend. This should include the poverty-proofing of all public policy initiatives
  • address long-term unemployment. This should include programmes to retrain and reskill those at highest risk
  • recognise the problem of the ‘working poor’. Make tax credits refundable for households in poverty that are headed by a person with a job
  • support the adoption of the living wage so that low-paid workers receive an adequate income and can afford a minimum, but decent, standard of living
  • introduce a cost-of-disability allowance to address poverty and social exclusion of people who have a disability
  • recognise the reality of poverty among migrants and adopt policies to assist this group. In addressing this issue, replace direct provision with a fairer system that ensures adequate allowances are paid to asylum-seekers
  • accept that persistent poverty should be the primary indicator of poverty measurement and assist the CSO in allocating resources to collect this data
  • introduce a basic-income system. No other approach has the capacity to ensure all members of society have sufficient income to live with dignity.

Poverty can be dramatically reduced. The initiatives set out here would lead to such a reduction.

Given that we know what needs to be done, does Ireland have the political will to cut the poverty rate in half in the coming five years?

Dr Sean Healy, CEO, Social Justice Ireland

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