Two details in the Irish section of yesterday’s OECD Society at a Glance 2014 report stand out. One defines how the economic collapse has had such a devastating impact on so many families, and the other shows how escalating and persistent unemployment puts tremendous pressure on a society and its finances.
Describing the challenge faced by far too many people, the OECD pointed out that more than one in six adults live in a house where no one has a job, hardly a happy environment or one conducive to fostering ambition, much less hope. This chilling, soul-crushing ratio has nearly doubled from one in 10 before the crisis. Putting flesh on that particular skeleton, the OECD points out that long-term unemployment is at a historic high and the proportion of Irish NEETs — young people neither in employment nor in education or training — is the sixth-highest in the OECD. This challenging and unacceptable figure stands at 16.7%, compared with an OECD average of 12.6%.
This grim reality increases the risk that unemployed young people become permanently disconnected from the labour market and face poor earnings and employment prospects for all of what should be their productive, working lives. Poverty and under-performance therefore become institutionalised and cross-generational.
In this context, it is hard not to think that a more assertive and demanding attitude might be appropriate, that social supports be directly linked to an individual’s efforts at training, re-education or making themselves more employable. Optimistic growth figures, the best in Europe, justify those measures too, as the ‘no-jobs-to-train-for’ argument is not as strong as it once was.
The report emphasised this and suggested measures such as priority access to childcare for people moving back to work and that employment-oriented support and work incentives should be gradually extended to all working-age family members. Though these are grim figures and would challenge the most robust of societies, the OECD found that well-targeted social benefits were effective at supporting hard-hit families. Essentially, and despite very large falls in earnings and a steep deterioration of labour-market conditions, our social protection system, by and large, worked. This conclusion is of little comfort to those struggling in a way they never envisioned. The OECD also pointed to an almost unique Irish situation: some jobless households on out-of-work benefits see only very limited income gains when one of the adults gets a job. Resolving this dichotomy is one of the great challenges facing government.
All in all, and even if there is no pleasure in acknowledging this, the core message of the report is that although there was and are considerable challenges, our social security system did what it was designed to do — it protected the most vulnerable from what could have been an appalling situation.
Its most valuable contribution, though, is that it challenges the cynical narrative behind some of the violent protests of recent days and weeks.
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