Michael Clifford: Who will bear the economic pain of the pandemic? 

After the economic collapse in 2008, austerity was imposed on those least able to bear it. It could happen again when the bill for the pandemic comes calling, believes trade unionist Brendan Ogle
Michael Clifford: Who will bear the economic pain of the pandemic? 

Catriona Twomey, of Penny Dinners in Cork, which is making up to 2,000 meals a week for those in need, compared to 150 before the pandemic. 

Brendan Ogle is on a mission. He has produced an economic analysis of inequality and deprivation in this country. Nearly as interesting as the content of the document is the premise the Unite trade unionist relied on for compiling it.

Last autumn, UCC economist Seamus Coffey wrote a piece in which he showed how income inequality in this country was bucking a trend. As the gap of inequality widens in most other wealthy countries, his analysis outlined, it has narrowed here.

His research was subsequently quoted in the Irish Times by the paper’s political editor, Pat Leahy. A few days later, Fine Gael’s Jerry Buttimer used it in a speech in the Seanad. Nothing unusual or controversial about any of that, all standard fare in the political-media ecosystem.

Except Ogle was outraged. His experience working in the community was, he felt, at complete odds with the idea that inequality was falling. 

More importantly, he saw it as déjà vu all over again. After the economic collapse in 2008, austerity was imposed on those least able to bear it. He believes it could happen again when the bill for the pandemic comes calling.

“If economic inequality is not fully contextualised, explained and understood then there are real dangers that the cost, as in the past, will primarily be borne by those who can least carry it. Who will pay?” reads the executive summary of 'Exploring Inequality and Deprivation in Ireland'.

The 38-page report is a mix of polemic, analysis and testimony. Messrs Coffey, Leahy and Buttimer are repeatedly mentioned. The repetition is jarring and unfair as there is an implicit suggestion that on the basis of one piece of research these three gents are somehow complicit in attempting to paint a rosy rather than realistic picture of inequality.

Ogle’s economic analysis, compiled with Dr Conor McCabe, looks sound but is challenged on this week’s Irish Examiner podcast where he and Coffey engage in a fascinating debate on equality in this country.

In brief, Ogle argues that Coffey’s analysis is based entirely on income and does not take into account seven other factors which give a much clearer picture of inequality.

A counter-argument could be made that if living standards are being raised for most, then the degree of inequality is not as crucial an issue. Some boats rise more than others in an ascending tide, but whether the smaller crafts are rising at all is contested.

Where the document excels is in the depiction of deprivation today. It quotes Social Justice Ireland – which has a record of top-quality research – as reporting that 680,000 people, including 200,000 children, are living in food poverty. That is a shocking indictment on a country as relatively wealthy as this one.

The document provides testimony from those at the frontline of this deprivation. Take Catriona Twomey of Penny Dinners’ in Cork, which is making up to 2,000 meals a week for those in need, compared to 150 before the pandemic.

“Hungry bellies are not equal to full bellies,” she says. “We are busier than ever. 

Food poverty is rampant throughout the land so it beggars belief that anyone could think equality exists. 

"Again, the hungry bellies of men, women and children show us that this definitely is not the case. Even some families with two people working are struggling.” 

Ber Grogan is involved in Basket Brigade, which delivers food to the needy in Dublin at Christmas. 

This year, volunteers reported back that people were greeting them at the doors crying, children dancing in the rain, mothers breaking down crying, children waiting at the windows for them. It is always emotional but this year was more so. 

"I also had some volunteers surprised at the need they saw in the homes.” 

These and accounts from other organisations assisting marginalised people speak of an expanding underclass which appear to be beyond the reach, and possibly the interest, of the political system.

This scenario is routine in many developed countries, but certainly until recent decades Ireland was a relatively intimate society. Poverty and deprivation were in some respects more widespread, but a sense of community ensured that fewer were left entirely to their own devices. That is no longer the case.

As such, those who are at the margins could easily fall victims to further cuts if spending has to be curtailed to pay for the pandemic.

Last time around, it was those without a voice who really got it in the neck, usually because they represented the point of least resistance. More often than not, arguments rationalising these decisions were made.

“We can never again allow a false narrative to be the precursor to the fiscal handling of an economic emergency such as the one the pandemic is creating,” the report states.

Where economic arguments are put from the left, right or centre they must be robust and sustainable. The homelessness, food and fuel poverty, healthcare issues, and living standards of our most deprived and of our working poor are real, painful and need to be addressed.” 

The premise for Ogle producing the document could easily be read as an overreaction to a piece of research with which he disagreed. It does, however, illustrate that among sections of the trade union movement and other representative organisations there is a hypersensitivity around anything they see – even at a far remove – as wandering into the narrative that existed after 2008.

Perhaps, 'Exploring Inequality and Deprivation' should have simply had the title 'Lest We Forget'. And we mustn’t forget. Last time around, the economy did manage to bounce back in macro terms in a relatively short period, but huge societal damage was done in the process. 

For that reason alone, if no other, this report should be on the table where decisions will be made about footing the bill after the pandemic.

Hungry Bellies Are Not Equal To Full Bellies – Exploring Inequality and Deprivation in Ireland – unitetheunion.org

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