Is a pint after work on a Friday night too much to hope for?
After eight years of strain, stress and sacrifice, the squeezed middle deserves a break, writes Carol Hunt
Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30
Yes, I was surprised too. Last week, the ESRI came out with a report that said the so-called squeezed middle, or coping classes, weren't as hard done by as they'd thought during the recession. Really? It doesn't feel like that. But, as they say, the numbers don't lie.
And last week's report, grandly called 'Crisis, Austerity, Recovery: Income Distribution through the Great Recession in Ireland' tells us that it was, in fact, those on the lowest incomes who suffered the largest contraction in income as a result of the recession - the rapid increase in unemployment being a major factor.
Well, yes, losing your job does tend to have that effect, doesn't it? I've seen it happen to many around me and it's terrifying; no more take-out coffees, pints on a Friday night or plans for a summer holiday. Just dread and worry and tension and the hope that this week's batch of CVs or interviews will result in a decent job. A proper job, a job that will pay the mortgage or the rent, put food on the table, pay the bills and leave a bit left over to actually live on, rather than just survive.
But what if you've got a job, a fairly decent job, a job which places you- in that lucky cohort of people who earn between €33,000 and €70,000 a year?
Well, you've got nothing to complain about have you? You've seen the statistics and as a member of the coping classes you've coped pretty well over the past eight years - or at least in comparison with those in the bottom 10pc. But a report last year by the ESRI suggested that the bulk of the burden of tax increases has been carried by those on middle incomes. Which makes sense. Someone has to pay for the increase in unemployment benefit and all those job-bridge schemes and if you're lucky enough to have a job then that someone is you.
But figures can only tell us so much of course. Scratch the surface of the supposedly well-off middle earners and in many cases you see a different picture. I did a few sums and realised that if I add my Other Half's income to mine we make up the archetypal middle-Ireland, middle-income couple. Aren't we the lucky ones! From the point of view of last week's ESRI report, we should be laughing all the way to the travel agents.
But, of course, like many other couples our age, we're not. When we turn on the TV and hear yet again that all the evidence points to the "worst being over", the "corner being turned" and the "economy being on the up" we wonder what sort of parallel universe we're living in, because we've yet to see the benefits of this wonderful new dawn.
Don't get me wrong, looking at cheerful faces predicting growth and employment and better times ahead is much, much better than the awfulness of what we witnessed during the past eight years, but is it so very bad to want to share in a bit of it?
Yes, I know. We need money for schools, hospitals, the homeless, special-needs teachers and all those areas which have taken a terrible hit since 2008. We need to invest in our social infrastructure. We need to stop moaning and count our blessings. We need to remember that those of us in the squeezed middle are so, so lucky not to have lost our jobs.
We know that. Every day we look at those who lost theirs, who are struggling to keep their homes or even worse have lost them, and we think, there but for the grace of God go I.
And yet . . . and yet . . . Is it so bad to want to have a few bob left over at the end of the week for a pint or two? It's one thing not being able to afford a night out when you're unemployed. At least you can hope that will change once you get a job. But what if you're already working as hard as you can and you still don't have tuppence once the bills are paid. This is what so many of the squeezed middle experience. Especially those who were so unlucky as to need to buy homes just when the market went totally ballistic.
On paper, it looks like we're hunky dory but God forbid that the car breaks down or a child needs braces. For the past eight years we've kept our heads down, worked as hard as we could, and paid every bloody tax thrown at us. But there's only so long you can keep going in crisis mode. We need to believe that we might be able to actually live a little again, get out once in a while, have the odd weekend away.
We don't want medals, just the hope that we can draw a line under all the horrible struggles of the past few years and be able to enjoy a pint in the local without worrying about the electricity bill. Is it selfish to want to live a little? Is it foolhardy to hope that we will see some of this recovery in our own pockets before too long?
Earlier this month, Exchequer returns showed that the tax take for 2015 is now forecast to be €2bn more than previously expected. Hopefully, other banks will follow AIB's example and cut variable interest rates, easing mortgage pressure on many.
A poll published in this newspaper two weeks ago showed that voters want austerity taxes and charges, such as the USC and water charges, to be cut first ahead of the Coalition's preferred option to reduce income tax.
No one wants a return to the profligacy of the Celtic Tiger days, but after eight years of stress, strain and sacrifice, we need to be able to look forward and believe that things will get better. We need hope. We need a break. Will we get it?