Poverty reports - Every strata of society is culpable

One of the least attractive aspects of the public discourse provoked by radically changed economic circumstances is how very quickly and stridently some people focus on the cost of social welfare supports, supports that are ever more important to a great and increasing number of people.

Usually the subtext, often unspoken, is that the cost is unsustainable and that many of those benefiting have made a lifestyle choice. The criticism may not plumb the depths of the Dickensian dismissal of differentiating between the deserving or the undeserving poor but it can come pretty close.

Yesterday’s report from the Economic and Social Research Institute — ‘Social Transfers and Poverty Alleviation in Ireland’ — put the scale of the issue in context. The proportion of household income received through social welfare payments increased by a daunting 50% in seven years between 2004 and 2011. This very substantial increase goes some way to explaining why 40% of the Government’s budget — something north of €20bn — went on social welfare last year.

Of course in any scheme involving these kind of sums there will be abuses and weakness, flaws that sometimes make welfare dependency more attractive than employment. However, if our recent history has taught us anything, it is that abuses of position and opportunity are not confined to any one strata of society.

This sad and draining reality was highlighted again at yesterday’s Public Accounts Committee in the Dáil where shameless abuse of position and sickening greed — let’s not pretend it was anything else — were the particular golden-circle indulgences under review.

The same process can be seen on an almost daily basis in our courts when once-powerful business people try to move or keep assets acquired through borrowings beyond the reach of creditors. The long-awaited banking inquiry is expected to uncover such abuse on a grand scale. The reality, and this is why we have spent the last few years in receivership, is that social welfare abuse pales when compared to the staggering betrayals, failures, and deceits of those entrusted with the management and protection of the capital on which we all depend. Our response should be proportionate.

A second report published yesterday focused on another consequence of poverty. Eurostat found that Ireland has one of Europe’s poorest records in breaking the transgenerational cycle of poor educational achievement. The report reaffirmed that opportunity or the lackthereof is largely inherited and a consequence of random fate. Surely it is an obligation of any society that imagines itself decent to do all it can to break that cycle of waste and failure — if only to serve its own needs.

It may be as difficult to end social welfare abuse as it is to end reckless banking, even if only a minority of those involved are culpable, but it should be easier to make educational achievement possible — and desirable — for those born into a culture where its liberating possibilities are not always celebrated, much less sought out. This kind of change would be a win-win situation on every level and probably do more for welfare reform than any of the draconian measures proposed by those who will not have to celebrate Christmas on the kind of meagre, scraping-by income our social protection schemes offer the great majority of those who depend on them.

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