THERE'S an odd bit of analysis in last week's Economic & Social Research Institute (ESRI) report on household wealth (or poverty) which struck me as very revealing. It concerned the fact that nearly half (44 per cent) of what we call the "working poor" are self-employed.
Now, the "party-line" in Ireland has always been that the self-employed or small business-owners are capitalist go-getters, squeezing the life-blood out of the system and their poor impoverished employees, while sending all their kids to college on state-funded grants.
Even now, entrepreneurs whose businesses have collapsed are viewed with suspicion, as people assume they have millions stashed in some offshore island and are only crying poverty to get out of paying their creditors. And in some cases, this is true. Other stories about bust developers, who owe gazillions, earning hefty wage packets while "helping" out Nama, or living the high life abroad don't help to alter the public perception that all people who work for themselves are creaming it.
But, as any ordinary self-employed person will tell you, this is nonsense. And as a person who comes from an extended family where everyone seemed to be self-employed or running their own business at some point, I can categorically add that this perception is complete and total bullshit (although I wish it were true).
I myself am now at the very bottom rung of the self-employed ladder, having never created a job for anyone but me – and even that is just part-time (my other job, as a stay-at-home mother, is held in little or no esteem in this country regardless of whatever self-serving rubbish is written in the Constitution).
But I do sometimes wonder what it must be like to live in a world so hilariously captured by the "civil servants" on Irish Pictorial Weekly; a world where you get paid extra for showing up to work, for eating at your desk, for answering a phone, for buying a newspaper, for ticking the boxes ...
A friend once decided she couldn't survive as a self-employed person and took a contract with a government department.
"What do you do in your new job?" I asked.
"To be honest, I'm not quite sure," she answered. "They
just seem to be delighted that I turn up in the morning – and after that it's time for tea."
I presumed she was exaggerating for entertainment value, but two months later she abruptly decided not to "turn up". As a very hard worker used to deadlines and achievements, she was now, she said, in danger of losing the will to live.
But people are different, and what suits one will not suit another. A guy I know left a semi-state company to work for himself, and within two years was greatly regretting his decision.
"What do you want to do now?" I asked him.
"Get back into State work," he answered. "I'm fed up not getting holiday pay, sick pay, no pension, and worrying if I'll still have a job next week; some months I don't earn enough money to cover my bills but I'm not entitled to any state assistance – seriously, the stress is killing me."
Welcome to the club, say the hordes of Irish self-employed people currently making up nearly half of our "working poor", which brings me back to the comment in the aforementioned ESRI report I thought so revealing.
The report concluded that "the working poor "are not a particularly disadvantaged group because many are self-employed or have a third-level qualification".
Which I'm sure is great news to all the well-educated, self-employed people out there who haven't the price of new shoes for their kids this Christmas, but a few might wonder what actually constitutes "disadvantaged".
The authors presumably meant that "the working poor" do not come from a "particularly disadvantaged group", as in they obviously belong to backgrounds where they were encouraged and educated – sometimes to a very high degree. However, it's rather obvious that they have become a very disadvantaged group.
As businesswoman Margaret Ward (CEO of Clear Ink and the new Broadly Speaking, which launches January 2013) told me: "There's a general belief that self-employed people and business owners are filthy rich. In the majority of cases that's far from true. Many business owners forgo their salaries and pensions to put money into the business to keep it going, pay their staff or expand into other markets. Credit is ridiculously tight so business owners must take greater risks to keep their business afloat. They have to sign personal guarantees for overdrafts, loans and put their homes up as collateral for even tiny amounts of money."
Last week, Brian Caulfield (partner at VC firm DFJ Espirit), at an event discussing the impact of the Budget on the Irish tech sector, said that while Ireland is a "fairly good place for business, in particular Foreign Direct Investment", it "remains a terrible place to be an entrepreneur". The panel agreed; arguing that Minister Noonan's 10-point plan for SMEs would "do little to help Irish businesses".
Despite the fact that, as Ward told me, "small-business owners create the majority of jobs in Ireland", government and indeed our society in general seem to dismiss them as self-serving opportunists. Odd that, when you see how the Government simultaneously licks the buttocks of every multinational that deigns to take advantage of our tax laws and then threatens us with pulling out of the country if we don't accede to their demands (see pharmaceutical sector).
This goes beyond being crazy business practice. It demonstrates a psychological jealousy and fear – bordering on the pathological – of our own, who have the confidence, the energy and the bravery to attempt to become entrepreneurs.
The resentment of those – snug and smug – in their well-paid, pensionable, expenses- laden jobs, for the person who dares to "get above themself" and strike out on their own, is obvious as small businesses and the self-employed continue to plummet down the poverty line while the increments (pay rises) and allowances (see Irish Pictorial Weekly) of the Croke Park deal are defended no matter what the cost to justice and equity. The well-educated, entrepreneurial "working poor" may not come from a "particularly disadvantaged group" but the discrimination with which they are treated in this country ensures that their children will.