The minister’s plan to tie such payments to the minimum essential standard of living is welcome and progressive, writes Paul Ginnell.
Our social welfare system should ensure that everyone, at whatever stage in life and whether working or not, has an income that allows them to live with dignity and take a full part in society.
Our welfare reveals a lot about our values as a society and how we protect those who are vulnerable and those who have medical and care needs.
It also provides us with a safety net, should a household fall on difficult times financially, for example through unemployment or illness.
It’s reassuring that there are payments and supports to help and assist us in our time of need.
While Ireland compares reasonably well to other countries, the welfare support here is not based on the cost of living and what is adequate to lift people out of poverty.
Many people who are dependent on social welfare cannot afford a decent standard of living. They are in poverty.
If we are to have a standard whereby those on social welfare can escape poverty, then we need to benchmark social welfare payments against a level that is adequate and which takes account of the cost of living.
Therefore, we welcome the comments by the Minister of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, at the recent Pre-Budget Forum, that she supports using the minimum essential standard of living (MESL) as a basis for bench marking social welfare payments.
It follows a commitment in the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Act, 2018, to consult with stakeholders on examining ways in which social welfare rates are increased to ensure adequacy for all recipients.
Setting such a benchmark would mean that changes in welfare payments would no longer be the gift of ministers at budget time, but, instead, based on achieving an amount that is adequate to enable people to live with dignity.
What measure should be the benchmark for setting social welfare supports?
The idea of adequacy must be kept to the fore by the minister. If not, people in receipt of social welfare will continue to be unable to meet their most basic needs.
The minimum essential standard of living has been used in Ireland for more than 20 years by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice.
By annually updating the cost of over 2,000 essential goods and services, it calculates the income needed for a broad range of different family types to afford a decent standard of living.
This is a basic standard, agreed by the wider public, that no-one should be expected to live below, and meets physical, psychological, and social needs.
The minimum essential standard of living is already established in Irish policy making and is used by the Insolvency Service of Ireland to calculate a household’s reasonable living expenses.
This is the income the household can retain to have a reasonable standard of living, while sorting out their debt.
The forensic research in calculating, and annually updating, the minimum essential standard of living allows for a detailed understanding of the changes in the cost of living and the impact of different policies on services and supports.
The 2019 update of the minimum essential standard of living, published in May, shows that, over the past six years, the number of family types achieving adequacy has improved since the dark days of the crash of 2008.
However, 132 of the 214 family types on social welfare still had an inadequate income in 2019.
The report outlines the range of policy changes that have brought about improvements for many families and makes proposals for the changes that are needed, if progress is to continue.
The research demonstrates the link between the cost of goods and services and the amount of money people need to achieve the minimum standard of living. The more someone has to pay for directly, the more money they need to have at hand.
Therefore, in Ireland, where successive governments have kept taxes relatively low by international standards and have invested less in public services, people require money to afford a decent standard of living.
Investment in, and reducing the cost of, public services, such as housing, childcare, and education, will immediately reduce the cost of living for most people, whatever their income.
The detailed work that goes into establishing the minimum essential standard of living means that it recommends itself as the ideal basis for bench marking social welfare supports.
The European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) Ireland is among a number of organisations working to ensure we have a progressive society for everyone, which will support Minister for Social Protection, Regina Doherty, in taking this forward.
Paul Ginnell is director of the European Anti-poverty Network Ireland.