Deputies

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Poverty level worsens

Richard Bruton (FG, Dublin NC) invited the Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs to comment on the most recent poverty statistics, released by the Central Statistics Office at the end of November (Dail Eieann, Debates, 14th December 2010, 23-5, 120-121).  The minister reported that the risk-of-poverty rate (the proportion under the standard European 60% poverty line – ed) was down from 14.4% in 2008 to 14.1% in 2009.  The consistent poverty rate had, during the same period, risen from 4.2% to 5.5%.  Jack Wall (Lab, Kildare S) asked the minister would he provide funding for organizations such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul which were pleading for help so that they could try to deal with the crisis that existed.  Pat Carey told him that he had been giving assistance to the bigger charities and had only that day approved payment of further money.  The rise in consistent poverty was a cause for concern, he added and this reflected an increase in unemployment.

The effect of the economic crisis on the poor was raised during debates on the Social welfare (miscellaneous provisions)#2 Bill, 2010, the IMF bailout of Ireland and on the decision of the government to reduce the minimum wage (Dail Eireann, Debates, 14th December 2010, 52 – 96; 15th December 311 – 343, 396 – 418). Mary Upton (Lab, Dublin SC) took the view that the reduction in the minimum wage made no social or economic sense.  There was no social argument, based on fairness or anything else, that justified cutting the incomes of the lower earners in society.  It would increase inequality and trap more working people in poverty for the sake of an ideology, which ignored the enormous social costs which could not be measured on a competitiveness index.  The argument about competitiveness implied that we had all benefitted from the economic boom and that consequently we must all share the pain.  It also implied a belief that lowering the pay of the lowest earners would remedy a decade of spiralling prices for everything from utilities to household essentials.  Competitiveness was not of much concern to the government when it inflated a housing boom that drove up prices to such unsustainable levels.

Jan O’Sullivan (Lab, Limerick E) described the decision to reduce the minimum wage as coming from people who were not living in the real world any more which was about people struggling to make ends meet.  People on the minimum wage and welfare spent all their money in the local economy and were not spending it going away on holidays.  They were not the people we saw on Reeling in the years going off shopping in New York.  We were talking about a two-tier society and suggesting that people in the lowest jobs, often the hardest jobs, were somehow different from the hospital consultants and the people at the top of the civil service who needed extra money to survive.  It seems we cannot go attacking them, we have to start at the people at the bottom on the minimum wage.

Martin Ferris (SF, Kerry N) likewise drew attention to an AIB executive receiving a bonus of €161,000.  Last week, a single parent on the minimum wage came to his constituency office who had no money to pay for heating oil for her home, but she had managed to scrabble together €5 or €6 to buy four gallons of heating oil.  ‘We will defend the workers and the minimum wage.  To hell with €161,000 bonuses for AIB executives!’

Deputies: ‘Hear, hear!’

Maureen O’Sullivan (ind, Dublin C) questioned why the losses of €68.8bn for senior bondholders and €1.4bn for subordinate bondholders should be cushioned while we were reducing the minimum wage.  Those on the minimum wage, the working poor, low-income families with children and people on social welfare would be disproportionately affected by the four-year plan, with reductions in funding for education, health and the voluntary and community sector.  The Society of St Vincent de Paul had reported an increase in calls of up to 50%.  She called for bonuses to be eliminated.  ‘We were told that those showing exceptional merit in the Department of Finance deserved an extra bonus, but real exceptional merit ‘ was being shown by those on low an middle incomes, on social welfare and on the minimum wage in coping with life.  High salaries, bonuses and expenses were alive and well because of the lack of a real social conscience in this house.  Sacrifices were being asked of those on social welfare, those on the minimum incomes, but they are not being asked of the corporate sector and the rich elite.  Finian McGrath (ind, Dublin NC) added that the poor and weak should never have to pay for the actions of the reckless who had destroyed the economic heart of the country.

Michael D Higgins (Lab, Dublin W) described his vision of a social floor, a threshold below which no citizen would be allowed to fall.  Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in economics, claimed that the test of citizenship was the ability to participate in society without shame.  The minimum wage was about the right of people to go about the ordinary things one should be able to do in a free and decent society, be that in education, health or housing.  Those who were cutting the minimum wage were visiting poverty on earners and their children.  Most of those on the minimum wage were women in the hospitality or retail sector.  Many of them were migrants, people who had been humiliated enough already or working in the grey and dark areas of the home-care industry.  There was a myth that the minimum wage was stopping Ireland coming out from recovery.  How dare the government made such an assertion? he asked.  As someone who had dealt with social statistics all his life, he had not seen one jot of evidence to sustain such a claim.  As the economy recovered, one test must be to examine how much more inclusion could be made possible.

For the government, the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Dara Calleary, described work as the best route out poverty and prevented people from falling back into poverty in the future.  The fact was that where a minimum wage was imposed at an excessively high level relative to the specific circumstances of the economy, unemployment would be higher than it should be. This was especially the case for younger people, who could be denied the opportunity to work by an excessive national minimum wage.  Paul Gogarty (GP, Dublin MW) contrasted Ireland’s situation as a member of the eurozone with other countries that were not, like Iceland and Argentina.  In Argentina, the number below the poverty line increased from 30% to 50% from 2001-2004 and the country went through massive austerity.  Our standard of living was gradually being reduced to a realistic level and it was a soft landing.