Child poverty

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Re-setting poverty targets

The Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, told Caoimhghin O Caolain (SF, Cavan Monaghan) that she was overseeing a comprehensive review of the national poverty target (Dail Eireann, Debates, 22nd November 2011, 454-5).  The purpose was to enable Ireland to adopt appropriate and achievable national poverty targets for Ireland’s contribution to the EU poverty target in the Europe 2020 Strategy and the commitments of the Programme for government.  She will present the outcome to the cabinet committee on social policy when finalized.  She added that she had held a pre-budget forum last 16th September attended by 34 organizations and their views would be listened to carefully in advance of spending decisions.


Later, she told Micheal Martin (FF, Cork SC) that her department was preparing the third annual report on social inclusion, which would outline progress over  2009-2010 (Dail Eireann, Debates, 22nd November 2011, 478-9).  It would be finalized early in 2012.  She had launched a review of the national poverty target in August 2011 with local workshops, on-line survey, meetings with social partners and a technical workshop with poverty experts.  Views were also presented at the annual social inclusion forum, held in November with over a hundred representatives of voluntary and community groups.


When asked specifically about child poverty (Dail Eireann, Debates, 23rd November 2011, 699-701), the minister told Mary Lou McDonald (SF, Dublin C) that the Economic and Social Research Institute had found substantial declines in poverty over 2004-7 for children under five, in large households and lone parent households.  She drew attention to the work of the commission on tax and social welfare which she had established last June which had been tasked to address child poverty issues.  Its report was due March 2012 and she hoped that it would find a way to retain universality of payment of child benefit while consolidating other children’s payments.  


Seamus Healy (UWA, Tipperary S) quoted the European Anti Poverty Network figures which indicated that, far from being overly generous, our spend on social welfare was the third lowest in 15 European countries.  The minister assured the Dail that she recognized the value of a universal payment, one of the few in the Irish welfare system, but we must achieve the best of both a universal and a targeted system.



Vincent de Paul, Barnardos figures on poverty

The Dail proceded to a two-day debate on reports by the Society of St Vincent de Paul and Barnardos of rising levels of child poverty (Dail Eireann, Debates, 29th November 2011, 75-96; 30th November, 466-489).  Introducing the debate, Aengus O Snodaigh (SF, Dublin SC) pointed out that 19% of all children were now known to be at risk of poverty.  He appealed for the level of child benefit not to be cut in the forthcoming budget, for to do so would both increase child poverty and damage the economy, especially the local economy, its shops and suppliers.  He added that other countries which had retained universal payments were doing better than us and argued that more targeting would make things worse.


Replying for the government, the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, agreed with the principle of a universal payment and pointed out that it was already supplemented by targeted payments such as qualified child payments and family income supplement.  The government, though, had to consider its options granted that spending on children had risen from €1.3bn in 2001 to €3.1bn in 2010.  The transition to a more balanced budget could not be undertaken without affecting social welfare payments and the government was aware of the severe effect of the economic crisis.


‘Throwing money at problem not the solution’

Simon Harris (FG, Wicklow) argued that simply throwing money at the problem of child poverty was not in itself the solution: real, practical, structural reform was required.  Last week he had visited child and family resource centres and youth centres in co Wicklow and seen at first hand the excellent work being done in homework clubs, breakfast clubs, childcare, training and further education for young parents.  So much was being done by so many, often on a voluntary basis.  


Maureen O’Sullivan (ind, Dublin C) said that she wanted to acknowledge the work of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, ‘an organization driven by volunteers in the real sense of the word’.  It was in a unique position to speak on poverty and was not the typical lobby group that made a presentation in Buswells and then returned to offices and high salaries.  Its members were out in the hostels, shops, housing associations and home visitations.  It spent €75m last year and took an unprecedented number of calls last year.  One of the most distressing figures was the spending of €9m on food, mainly for families with children, one parent families, people living alone and migrants.  Nobody should goto school hungry, every child should look forward to Santa and children should not feel inadequate because they do not have the right books at school.


Welfare rates in Ireland are among the lowest in the EU15 states according to the European Anti Poverty Network (EAPN) Ireland, stated Joan Collins (PBP, Dublin SC).  While the average spend on social welfare was 27% of GDP, Ireland was the lowest at 18.2%.  Clare Daly (SP, Dublin N) quoted Social Justice Ireland, which it described as ‘hardly the most militant or revolutionary group in the country’ saying that child benefit was a red line issue.  She too had received the EAPN briefing showing that government policies were contributing to the rising numbers of those at risk of poverty, now 16%.  


Luke Ming Flanagan (ind, Roscommon/Leitrim S) spoke of how when he was a child the children’s allowance paid the ESB bill – and when his oldest brother left home they had a lot of difficulty paying it, which was not a nice feeling as a young child.  The credit union had showed that 25% of all people had less than €70 left after their bills were paid – and the government now proposed to take away another €10, €20 or €30.  Seamus Healy (UWA, Tipperary S) also commended the work of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, quoting its pre-budget submission showing a 36% increase in workload in Dublin, 23% in the mid-west, 36% in Galway and 45% in Cork.  The main requests were for food, fuel, education and housing costs.  Barnardos spoke of how children were going without either hot meals or school trips, which many of us took for granted.


One of the saddest aspects of child poverty was that a large proportion came from families where one parent was already working, said Martin Ferris (SF, Kerry N).  He was struck by the way in which people on the minimum wage told him of how they could not meet the basic needs of their children, an indictment of a society based on encouraging work and self-sufficiency.  That was how those who worked the most hard and unpleasant jobs were rewarded.  The working poor were being penalized, rather than rewarded, exploited by low-wage employers, rack-rented by the élite and seeing their social provisions undermined to pay the gambling tabs of the bankers.  A child whose parents were working had all the more reason to ask whey he or she was hungry or badly clothed.  Thousands of children in this country would not have a Christmas because of failed policies.  Children were hungry so that €700m could go to Anglo Irish Bank, with another €1.25bn due in January.  Parents did not have enough to heat their house, put food on the table or clothe their children.