How do you know when they’re deserving? When they’re miserable, that’s how, writes Victoria White.

MY NORTHERN Presbyterian granny used to bang on about “the deserving poor” until one day my mother snapped and asked, “What about the poor who are not deserving?” Who was she to judge “deserving” from “undeserving” anyway? What was she doing setting herself up on a moral pedestal from which she observed her small Donegal town, her hands busy crocheting blankets for “the heathen” from wool scraps?

No one talks about “the heathen” any more but I wonder how much attitudes have really changed from my granny’s day. A ghastly puritanism is still there in the insistence that the only poor worth supporting are those who are working full-time for cash. If they can’t produce cash they must have a product.

How else would the 88-year-old master of religious art, Patrick Pye, have been told by the Arts Council that he is no longer eligible for his €17,120 Aosdána grant unless he can prove he has done work “of merit” in the last five years?

This is behaviour of mindblowing insensitivity and even inhumanity. Which of us will be “productive” at 88 and who cares? The humanitarian background to Aosdána was very clearly concern for destitute artists in their later years. The vast majority of them will have had no chance to save for a pension and many will have no property. That is what happens when you give your life to art.

You can’t do good art unless you give your life to it, either. That is what is so ridiculous about Leo Varadkar’s less-than-expansive offer of a year’s jobseeker’s allowance free of “activation measures” if you can prove you’re a writer or visual artist.

From elderly artists to lone parents, everyone deserves a basic livelihood

After this one year the artists are meant to have “got started in life”, whatever that means. Their best hope might be to speed-date for the year in the hope of meeting a partner who is not an artist. In artistic terms, a year is nothing. An artist is an artist for life whether or not that life ever “gets started”.

I achieved a fleeting notoriety in artistic circles in May 2014, when I slammed Aosdána and all who sail in it in this newspaper. I take none of it back. I don’t think comfort in old age should depend on whether a person can draw or not. I think it should be there for everyone.

It was former HSE employee Jacky Jones in the Irish Times who compared a year’s jobseeker’s allowance, worth €10,036, with the annual Aosdána grant of €17,120, a comparison which shows how this society divides the “deserving” from the “undeserving” poor. All Varadkar’s provision of jobseeker’s benefit for artists does is allow them into the category of “deserving” poor before kicking them back where they belong among the “undeserving”.

Unless they get shortlisted for an Oscar or the Booker Prize or work the system and get themselves elected to Aosdána or marry someone rich.

Still, they get better treatment than parents and that gets my goat. A mother who has produced a new life and is married or cohabiting actually gets state support in the form of maternity leave for 26 weeks, which is 26 weeks less than an artist “getting started in life”. After six months she has a choice: Leave a desperately needy baby often not even weaned from the breast or, if funds allow, become that most hated of things, a kept woman. Most make up a queasy mixture of all these options and somehow get by. Exactly as artists do, except with even less public support and recognition.

As for single parents, well now that really is where the term “undeserving” has to be employed. Some of them do nothing at all but supply all the needs emotional and practical, of a child or a family of children, all night and all day. The State really had no choice but to step in and stop this gross inactivity and moral turpitude.

From July 2015 lone parents whose youngest child was more than seven years old were turfed off the One Parent Family payment and officially termed a “jobseeker”. Those parents already had a job and the job was rearing a young child alone.

That didn’t count. What counted was the 9-5 on someone else’s property. As the report of the loint Oireachtas committee on social protection made plain last week, the only childcare subsidy available to these lone parents is for creches which open office hours.

The State ignores the lone parent’s child as completely as the employer might have ignored a bump which suddenly disappeared from under a maid’s apron in my granny’s day. The committee points out that lone parents who enrol for State-run training courses have to clock in and may lose their social welfare if they don’t, even if their child is sick at home or off school. Not to mention the fact that many courses begin at 8.30am while most schools open at 9am.

It is genuinely incredible to read in the report how lone parents whose youngest child is seven or more are divided into three categories: Those “selected for activation”; those in “the activation phase”, and those who have been “fully case managed.” Speed-dating for a rich partner would hardly be less insulting.

These measures aim to tackle deprivation in the 60% of lone parents’ homes which suffer it by depriving them still more. We know they’re poor — 26.2% of the children of lone parents live in consistent poverty — but at least now they’re on track to be deserving!

How do you know when they’re deserving? When they’re miserable, that’s how. When their seven-year-old is making no fist of the reading and they’re stuck behind a cash register instead of helping her. Just like Patrick Pye can return to the ranks of the deserving by getting into that studio and banging out those paintings like he did when he was 30.

To stop the misery and the inhumanity we need to have a serious discussion about the provision of a condition-free basic income from the State to allow everyone a “frugal but decent” lifestyle. This would require an income tax rate of 45% or more on all paid work but the loss would be more than made up by basic income for the less well-off.

“Financial security should be a right of one’s membership of a society not a right that only comes with employment,” writes Anne B Ryan of Basic Income Ireland.

“Security and tolerance also support creativity, innovation, co-operation, and resourcefulness.” Only then would my granny, crocheting for “the Heathen” and dividing the poor into “deserving” and “undeserving”, be knocked off her pedestal in the sky.


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