Unemployment deepens the urban-rural divide

As the screw turns, rural households are first in line to be pushed below — or further below — the poverty line.

So says Irish Rural Link (IRL), the national network of over 500 rural community groups.

Research has indicated that rural households need between €3,600 and €5,600 per annum more than their urban counterparts, in order to maintain a basic standard of living.

IRL has highlighted the 11 years of Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice (VPSJ) research on the cost of a minimum essential standard of living.

Latest VPSJ findings show that many pensioners living alone, households with children and unemployed single adults of working age can’t get by. For example, a jobseeker and stay-at-home spouse with children aged 10 and 15, living in social housing and paying €45 per week in rent, have a weekly shortfall of €153.96 in rural areas and €93.02 in a big town (see www.budgeting.ie).

According to IRL chief executive, Seamus Boland: “The huge increases in the price of fuel, which have worsened as a result of carbon tax, combined with the dwindling access to services in rural areas, have made it extremely difficult for families living on low wages.”

In a budget submission to Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin, he asked the Government to ensure that vulnerable rural families are not impoverished as a result of being in low paid employment or none at all.

Everyone expects a tough budget. What is IRL’s biggest budget fear on behalf of rural dwellers?

>>Seamus Boland: Our biggest fear is that the budget will fail to recognise the serious disenfranchisement felt by rural families, in terms of the unfair tax burden. The main example of this is the manner in which the carbon tax was introduced.

All economists agree that carbon tax is a disadvantage in rural areas. It increases the cost of living in terms of transport, and because it is not ring fenced in a way that allows investment to be made in rural areas, it re enforces the sense of abandonment felt by rural communities.

Agriculture is seen as a rare bright spot in the economy, but you predict increasing emigration from rural areas. Why then do rural areas in Ireland have higher unemployment?

>>While agriculture is in terms of farming doing well; this is not being transferred into the area of job creation. We still export most of our output before processing and therefore do not get the full benefit of the industry.

So jobs aren’t being created fast enough. Also Ireland’s economy in rural terms is still trying to recover from the old structure of dependence on the farm, the public service and the building industry for employment.

Because the latter two have collapsed there is a huge expectation and burden on agriculture to deliver. Therefore, given the historic variance suffered by farming, there is too much expected, which cannot be delivered.

Many of the farm organisations along with IRL would be worried about the effect of the current bad year on farm incomes. This will not advance the development of agriculture.

You say more and more poor rural families are forced to depend on money lenders. Is rural poverty out of sight, out of mind, as far as the Government is concerned?

>>Poverty has always been a feature of Irish rural life. However, as far back as a study by Combat Poverty in 1994, it is by its nature invisible. This is due to the scattered settlement pattern of rural families. The current poverty would appear to be felt most by young families where one or both parents have lost their job and are caught with high borrowings made in the last 10 years. The situation for people living alone, mainly in the older age bracket, and especially for men, is getting progressively worse. For these the problem is not just monetary, but the loss of access to services in their own area.

You recommend restructuring of the Rural Social Scheme and Community Services Scheme. What specific changes are you looking for?

>>These schemes are a lifeline for many families and must be continued. Both schemes could offer greater training opportunities. The community services scheme would benefit from a clear and deliverable set of outcomes in terms of creating employment for the people who are leaving the schemes. A co-ordinated approach by all agencies to concentrate on helping people to develop own businesses or attain further education would help.

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