Social welfare payouts - Struggling families on the brink

THE grinding economic crisis is making life impossible for people in every layer of society but nowhere is the toll more telling than among low-income families on social welfare and amid Ireland’s new poor as mortgage holders face the financial squeeze.

Revealing statistics in today’s front-page report are a reminder of the circumstances confronting thousands of people up and down the country, a truly bleak scenario judging by the level of emergency payments to social welfare recipients in the past 12 months.

No amount of spin doctoring can gloss over the appalling financial hardship of many families. The worst economic crises ever seen in this country, much of it inflicted by wrong-minded government policies, saw community welfare officers dole out hundreds of millions in emergency payments to families mired in financial difficulties.

Last year alone, unplanned payments by the State jumped by €244 million to a whopping €1,048m, an increase of 23%, and have rocketed by an incredible 54% from 2007 to 2009. Behind these bald financial statistics are stories of real hardship.

Among desperately needed pay outs to people onsocial welfare, including over 420,000 unemployed workers, more than half the €508m was spent on rent supplements and related payments.

Because social welfare claims were not processed on time, emergency cheques for a further €432m had to be paid. While the delay was aggravated by the recent Arctic weather conditions, a massive and unacceptable backlog had piled up long before the onset of winter, a problem that could and should have been anticipated by civil servants and the Government.

With the system swamped by the sheer volume of claims, many clients had to wait up to three months for approval of jobseeker benefits and allowances as well as disability and one-parent family payments. At the same time, €172m in emergency payments went towards helping hard-hit parents to buy children’s clothing and household goods.

Meanwhile, a new poor has emerged in Irish society as evidenced by the revelation that 24,800 people last year rang the help line of MABS, the Money and Budgeting Service, seeking advice on debt repayments. Most were aged between 26 and 40 and were having difficulty repaying their mortgages.

In the past two years, the number of households receiving mortgage interest relief increased by over 250%. And with 27,000 mortgage holders now in arrears, the number of repossessions is expected to rise dramatically.

Against this bleak backdrop, beleaguered members of Fianna Fáil will no doubt take solace from the latest opinion poll showing their rating has improved slightly in spite of the budget.

The burning question is whether this trend will last as taxpayers continue to bail out banks that are now on the brink of nationalisation, with homeowners in negative equity and the value of their residences halved, amid growing protests against cutbacks in the public service, and with hundreds of thousands of people on social welfare at the pin of their collars to survive.

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