FERGUS FINLAY: When ‘financial distress’ translates into poverty, hunger and want

ARE you familiar with the term “financial distress”?

It’s not one I ever came across before — at least, that is, until I began to look at the Central Statistics Office’s latest Quarterly National Household Survey.

And as I began reading it, it dawned on me. Official Ireland may have developed a new term, a new way of describing one of the things we don’t like to talk about. It’s almost as if, if we got the real meaning out into the open, people might start protesting. There might be anger, outrage even. It might come to be seen as something of a scandal.

Financial distress, on the other hand, is the sort of thing we only ever talk about quietly, isn’t it? It has a genteel ring to it, like something from the 1940s. Houses with parlours might be suffering from financial distress, but the neighbours would never be allowed to see it. Financial distress is the sort of thing we keep to ourselves.

And there it is, in the first paragraph of the CSO report — published, ironically enough, on Valentine’s Day. It’s classic CSO jargon (they’d never win a plain English award), but its meaning is clear enough, when you go on to look a t the figures. “A short pilot module on the response of households to the economic downturn was included in the Quarterly National Household Survey in the second quarter (April — June) of 2011. Drawing on the experience of this pilot module a QNHS module on household financial distress will be conducted in the third quarter (July – September) of 2012 and results will be published in early 2013.”

Poverty. That’s what they’re talking about. Hunger. Want. Cold. Families doing without. Children doing without. And it’s great that they’re going to do a more detailed study of the effects of the recession on children and families later this year, and that the results will be available next year. It’s great. But actually, we don’t need it.

It’s already clear — starkly and painfully clear — to anyone working with children and families across the country that the recession is making the deepest cuts where it can be least afforded. All of us in the field could tell stories of families having to turn to money lenders just to be able to put food on the table or pay the heating bill to keep the house warm in winter.

Here are just some of the findings of the CSO survey: since the recession started, almost two thirds of households have cut back their spending on clothing and footwear. More than half of households have cut back their spending on groceries and more than half cut back spending on going out. Holidays abroad were also targeted for cutbacks by just under half of all households.

That’s pretty grim — it means that in our age of austerity, an awful lot of us are reporting that we have to make do with less of the things that make up an ordinary quality of life. But eight out of every 10 households where there is unemployment have had to cut back on groceries. According to the CSO, households with children were more likely than those without children to cut back their spending on groceries, clothing and footwear, going out, and lessons or classes. In general terms, households with children, and younger parents, have had to cut back far more than other households.

And the phrase “going without” doesn’t just mean buying less food, or being unable to buy new shoes for your children. Again, quoting directly from the survey, one-in-10 households borrowed money from family or friends to pay for basic goods and services over the two years prior to the survey.

Since the recession started, almost half of all households have spent some or all of their savings and two thirds reduced the amount being saved. One fifth of households delayed or missed paying their bills in order to meet their outgoings on basic goods and services. One-in-10 households delayed or missed loan repayments and one-in-10 delayed or missed paying their credit card bills.

And the picture gets a lot worse when the households concerned are either lone parent households or have been affected by unemployment. Even the CSO abandons its normally dry language when it says, “Households where one adult lived with at least one child were particularly affected as one third had borrowed money from family or friends, one quarter had delayed or missed loan repayments and half had delayed or missed paying bills.

Almost 30% of (unemployed) households had borrowed money from family or friends to pay for basic goods and services. In addition, half of such households had missed paying household bills and more than one quarter had missed loan repayments.”

This is all statistics — we know that. But it’s also evidence — it’s evidence of the complete failure of public policy. One government bankrupted our country and put it onto receivership, and its successor — the government I voted for with tens of thousands of others — has so far ignored the reality of poverty.

In fact, public policy has made poverty worse, and is doing so every day. The truth is that successive budgets have squeezed family incomes to such an extent that many are now going without the basic essentials. When electricity, clothing and food have to be done without, we have passed a new level.

And I have to tell you the God’s honest truth that when I hear politicians, especially politicians of the left, devoting all their energies to septic tanks and household charges and turf-cutting, when the evidence of Dickensian poverty is beginning to pile up around them, it makes me sick. For two years now it has been clear that families cannot afford any more cuts to their income or services.

We have seen five budgets that attacked low income families through cuts to social welfare payments and increased taxes that were not redistributive or fair. At the end of all that — while our economy continues to stagnate — the Valentine’s Day CSO findings paint a bleak picture for children and families in Ireland.

Of course our country needs time and space to get back on its feet. Of course we need to do all the things the newspapers and radio are full of — develop the smart economy, grow the exporting sectors, maximise the added value of our agri-business, and all the rest of the old guff we go on about all the time. Of course we need to pay our way and recapitalise the banks and worry about the euro and humour the IMF whenever they come to call on us. We don’t have any choice about any of this — even if most of it is not our fault.

But while we’re doing all this stuff, could we please just stop for a minute and realise that, with five years to go until we celebrate the centenary of our Proclamation of Independence, children are going hungry and cold in Ireland. And they’re doing it in the name of economic policy. If we allow this to continue, won’t it soon to be time to wonder what have we become?

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