Children in poverty - Jobs are the best answer to poverty

Even though a great number of people have had to accept a reduced standard of living, some a greatly reduced standard, the presentation by Ita Mangan, chairman of the Advisory Group on Tax and Social Welfare, to an Oireachtas committee must provoke some soul searching for anyone who imagines they have a social conscience.

Anyone who believes that every child deserves something at least approaching an opportunity to realise their potential must feel chastened by the image of Ireland she offered. This is true whether you hope for a more secular Ireland, or take comfort in the deeply challenging traditions of Christianity.

The figures Ms Mangan collated described a society failing far too many of its citizens, especially children. It might be going too far to say the situation she described is Dickensian but not by very much; they certainly do not reflect a modern, progressive and relatively wealthy society.

She told the committee that one-in-five young people live in a home where income is below €20,000 and that nearly half of the State’s children — 48% — live in homes in receipt of social welfare. Ms Mangan said the vast majority of children did not live in wealthy households, with 80% in homes where income is below €80,000.

Focus for a moment on the 48% of children who live in homes in receipt of social welfare. If you and most of your family are lucky enough, through your good fortune or effort, not to be numbered among those who depend on a tiny slice of the annual €20.26bn social protection budget try to imagine the range of opportunities available to those children. Imagine how hard it is for them today, when every job is so very precious, to break out of that poverty trap.

More than €2.8bn will be spent on child-related payments this year. This accounts for about 14% of social protection spending. Child benefits account for two-thirds of that. They are paid on a universal basis to some 609,000 families for about 1.16m children — basically, you get it whether you need it or not.

This has been a political hot potato for years and half-hearted attempt after half-hearted attempt to resolve it have run into the sand because of the “complexity” involved. Yet, this very week the administration that cannot cope with that challenge wrote to every homeowner in the country telling them what their property is worth. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and it’s well beyond the time to re-balance this spending to change lives rather than just enhance them.

In one of his more sobering television sermons naturalist Sir David Attenborough declared that every environmental problem we faced would be easier to resolve if there were fewer people in the world. Using similarly powerful if less pessimistic logic Ms Mangan suggested that the best solution to child poverty is the creation of jobs. That would resolve so many problems, not just child poverty. What a pity it is so that we do not address these issues — child poverty and job creation — with the same passion used to object to property taxes or abortion. Or is it that our priorities are skewed, that our actions speak louder than words?

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