If five percent of the population suddenly fell ill to an unknown disease a national emergency would be called. Government agencies and health professionals would be brought together under the direction of an emergency cabinet committee to first diagnose the disease, come up with a cure and then deliver it.
Well, we have such a disease – and it affects not five percent but 30 percent of the population. It is not unknown - It is the economic and social disease of deprivation. The CSO released the 2013 Survey of Income and Living Conditions and the data on deprivation is truly alarming.
There are now 1.4 million who are categorised by the CSO as living in deprivation. There are well over 400,000 children living in households suffering from multiple deprivation experiences. Since the start of the crisis, these numbers have more than doubled. The disease is spreading.
You are classified as ‘deprived’ if you unable to afford or experience two of the following items:
Two pairs of strong shoes * A warm waterproof overcoat * Buy new (not second-hand) clothes * Eat meat with meat, chicken, fish (or vegetarian equivalent) every second day * Have a roast joint or its equivalent once a week * Had to go without heating during the last year through lack of money * Keep the home adequately warm * Buy presents for family or friends at least once a year * Replace any worn out furniture * Have family or friends for a drink or meal once a month * Have a morning, afternoon or evening out in the last fortnight for entertainment
This is not a welfare phenomenon. Over 22 percent of all those experiencing deprivation are actually in the working force – well over 300,000.
The number of people experiencing in-work deprivation has more than trebled since 2008 - more than one-in-five working today. Over a third of one-income households are in deprivation. But a substantial number of two-income households also find their living standards marred – one-in-six.
Clearly, having a job is not necessarily a pathway out of poverty.
However, we find the highest levels of deprivation among social constituencies which are highly reliant on social protection.
More than half of the unemployed, and the disabled and sick live in deprivation conditions. For one-parent households, it is nearing two-thirds.
The current Government is at pains to stress that the living standards for those on social protection have been ‘protected’ (since their basic payments have been frozen). Never mind that inflation has cut the value of those payments; or that there have been a number of cuts in other income supports and in-kind benefits. These three groupings have seen deprivation levels rise substantially since the Government took office:
- Unemployed: from 42.4 percent in 2011 to 54.9 percent in 2013
- Unable to work due to disability or illness: from 35.9 percent to 53.1 percent
- One-Parent families: from 56 percent to 63.1 percent
So much for the Government’s anti-poverty credentials.
There are many assertions that the elderly have ‘escaped’ the worst of the recession and austerity measures. How valid is this? Yes, deprivation among those over 65 (16.1 percent) are lower than the national average (30.5 percent). However, when we look closer we see there are certain categories – in particular, elderly living alone – which are faring poorly.
The rise and extent of deprivation among the over 65s has not been pronounced as other groups (almost no child-related costs, a higher outright ownership of homes, no nominal cuts in pensions). But it is a stretch to say that over 65s have escaped the ‘worst’ when nearly one-in-four elderly living alone are in deprivation – especially when you consider they are not in a position to increase their income through work.
Let’s look at deprivation based on income – this will give a good perspective of how pervasive this economic and social disease is. The following is based on deciles (the population broken down into 10 percent groupings) and equivalised income which factors in household size.
It is not surprising that those in the lowest income groupings have high levels of deprivation. However, look at the middle income groups. In the 5th decile, deprivation has risen from 9 percent in 2008 to 39 percent in 2013. IN the 7th decile – which is below the national average – nearly one-in-five experience deprivation; a doubling since 2008.
This shows that deprivation is not confined to those reliant exclusively on social protection. Low-pay, high childcare costs, high levels of debt – these and other factors contribute to rising deprivation levels.
There is one other stat I want to focus on. Government ministers and some commentators may point out that relative poverty rates have remained relatively constant. This is true: relative poverty rates have only marginally increased since 2008 – from 14.4 percent to 15.2 percent. Hence, we get the claim that Government policy has ‘protected’ people from rising poverty.
However, these numbers should come with a strong health warning. Relative poverty is measured as 60 percent of median income (median income is the midpoint at which half of people earn below this amount and half earn above this amount). If the median income is €20,000, then the relative poverty line will be €12,000 – 60 percent of the median income.
So let’s look at both the median income and relative poverty line since 2008.
Ah, now we see why relative poverty has remained static. It is not because people are being ‘protected’. It is because median income is falling and, therefore, the poverty threshold is falling. In 2008, you’d be classified as being ‘at-risk of poverty’ if you earned less than €12,455. Now, to be classified so, your income would have to be less than €10,531.
Let's put it another way. Let’s say your income was €12,400 in 2008. You’d be in relative poverty. Unfortunately your income fell by 15 percent by 2013. You would be worse off – significantly worse off. But because the national average has fallen faster, you would no longer be classified as being ‘at-risk of poverty’. You’re worse off but no longer poor – that’s the problem with the relative poverty line.
The CSO gives an insight into this. In 2007, 16.5 percent were in relative poverty. If that threshold were frozen in real terms (i.e. after inflation), then in 2013 23.8 percent would be in relative poverty – nearly one-in-four.
This is a national emergency. Nearly one-in-three are living in deprivation. Nearly 40 percent of children suffer this fate. Whether in work, unemployed, reliant upon social protection – even average incomes: 1.4 million suffer are officially deprived.
In any emergency, the Government should act immediately. They would call a summit of all those involved in policy, research and work on the ground (as proposed by Unite). What are some of the things that could be started? Here are just a few:
- Increase social protection rates back to 2009 levels and restore the more egregious cuts
- Increase the minimum wage and end precariousness (abolish zero-hour contracts)
- Freeze rents, and launch a new housing agency which would operate commercially to provide low-rent accommodation in the private sector
- Roll out affordable childcare and reduce education costs
- Write-down household debt – or at least park a substantial portion over the long-term
- Provide real jobs for the long-term unemployed through contracts with civil society organisations and public agencies (not JobBridge, not Gateway, real jobs paying real wages)
- Restore supports for key social groups (elderly, the disabled) such as home helps
These are just some of the measures that are needed. But there are many more.
Action is needed – urgently. The disease is spreading. It is an indictment of the public debate that this isn’t at the top of the agenda. Everyone one, every organisation, every political party and politician must start speaking to this.
We can cure the disease. But only if we first acknowledge that it exists.