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We cannot plunge pensioners back into poverty

PROFESSOR John FitzGerald of the ESRI and a number of other economic commentators have suggested recently that the Government should examine the fairness of exempting the state pension from cuts in the forthcoming budget. They use the argument that it was spared in recent budgets, so it should be in the firing line in December.

As a charity working to improve services and policies for older people, we welcome this debate. But there is a need to present the reasons why the state pension has not been cut to date, and should not be cut in December. The single greatest argument is that the state pension is a vital buffer to protect pensioners from poverty. Any tampering with it in the budget would cause increased hardship for some older people.

The stark reality is that more than half the pensioners in Ireland are dependent on the state pension as their sole means of income, and this situation is unlikely to change for the rest of their lives. This fact has been ignored in the debate to date.

The state pension has increased from a very low level in the 1990s, with the effect that the numbers of pensioners living in poverty had been cut from 44% in 2001 to 10% in 2009.

The fact that one-in-10 pensioners continues to live in poverty at the end of a major economic boom is not something to be proud of, but the reduction in poverty levels among older people is a major success. We cannot now start dismantling that success and plunging more older people back into poverty.

Many of them live on incomes which leave them hovering around the poverty line. Research by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice found that a woman aged over 70 and living alone faces a shortfall of between €12 and €67 a week between what it would cost to live a sustainable lifestyle and what she receives in social welfare payments. Pensioners living alone are also one of the groups most likely to struggle to afford to heat their homes.

Despite the public perception that older people have escaped the cuts, nothing could be further from the truth. From the loss of the Christmas bonus, which accounts for 2% of their annual income, to the reduction in basic entitlements for medical card holders, the rationing of home help, meals-on-wheels and essential community-based services, life has got a lot more difficult for older people in the past 12 months.

As grandparents, community activists and former workers, older people recognise that other social welfare recipients are also suffering. That is why Age Action is part of the wider coalition of organisations in the Poor Can’t Pay campaign (www.thepoorcantpay.ie) working to protect social welfare payments, to have the Christmas bonus reinstated and to protect the minimum wage.

It may be an easy option to cut the state pension in a bid to balance the books. But for the most vulnerable of older people, to cut the state pension, as some commentators are suggesting, would be a cut too far.

Eamon Timmins

Head of Advocacy and Communications

Age Action

Lr Camden Street

Dublin 2


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