News Martina Devlin

Monday 22 September 2014

Martina Devlin: When parents can't feed children, it's not a recession, it's a catastrophe

Published 18/10/2012 | 17:00

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AS a people, we are partial to ambiguity and to diplomatic speech, which allows what's happening in Ireland today to be described as a recession. That belongs to the same category of euphemism whereby World War Two became the Emergency.

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This is no recession, it is a catastrophe. Four years into the economic downturn -- another of our delicate turns of phrase -- the reality of austerity is blindingly visible.

For downturn read meltdown. For cutting back read cutting people no slack. For parity of pain read disproportionate pain.

Members of the troika could tour the country and pat every citizen personally on the head for taking their medicine, for all the good it would do. 'Time' magazine could put every last one of our government ministers on its cover.

But the outlook is bleaker, not brighter. This is not a case of people feeling the pinch, as was predicted. It is hardship. It is want. It is children in need: going to bed hungry, walking to school hungry.

The vulnerable have been suffering already -- death by a thousand cuts. But now the cohort of citizens squeezed to the limits of their endurance is growing. And the approaching winter, with higher gas and electricity prices already authorised, is a source of dread.

Within relatively comfortable circles, a belief exists that the social protection system acts as a giant safety net. Safety nets are not infallible, however.

One in 10 people are living in food poverty, with lone parents and those on low incomes most at risk, according to a report from the Department of Social Protection. Those figures apply to 2010 -- it's hard to believe 2011 and 2012 won't reveal further deterioration.

Food poverty -- what a phrase to send a chill through the national consciousness. How is it possible in the 21st Century for our neighbours to be struggling with the most basic survival need known to humankind: food?

Out-of-work actor Joe Purcell told RTE's 'Liveline' that he shoplifted groceries out of desperation, to feed his three children. He received 100 hours community service after being caught taking some basic breakfast items.

When choices are removed, playing by the rules becomes a luxury not everyone can afford. Especially where hungry children are concerned. Although Mr Purcell's family are entitled to benefits, no system is free of error, and in this case the cheques went to the wrong address.

An unusual example, perhaps. But it's no longer about tightened belts for many of our citizens. There are no more notches on their belts.

For four years we've been hearing macro-economic arguments, political arguments and moral hazard arguments, as bank debt was transformed into sovereign debt.

Now, executive level theorising has trickled down to the most fundamental reduction of all: the scramble to put food on the table. It is an ongoing challenge for a number of sectors, both those in work and those without work.

Poverty is all around us, and it is pointless carping that it doesn't compare with sub-Saharan Africa or our ancestors eating grass at the height of the Great Famine. Any parent, in particular, who has been unemployed for a time or is on a low wage is liable to run into difficulties.

Shop in economy stores is the rallying cry from well-meaning people, citing the cost of a tin of beans from Aldi or Lidl. With the implication that only fecklessness prevents families from being fed for a few euro a day.

But what if a cut-price retailer isn't located nearby? How does a parent relying on public transport manage to bring home their shopping, while trailing young children?

Shop-bought pizza, or fish and chips from the corner takeaway, are expensive day after day and nutritionally unsound. But not everyone has the ability to rustle up nourishing stews from scratch. Education is needed here, although the benefits won't be immediate.

"It's quite challenging to plan and deliver healthy meals on a budget," said Audry Deane, who works on the St Vincent de Paul's society's social justice and policy team. "Many people may not have the skills, particularly those from a disadvantaged background. Not everyone grew up with a Waltons' lifestyle."

Research by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland found families on social welfare had to spend a third of their weekly budget on food for a healthy diet. It also found it was up to 10 times cheaper to provide calories in the form of unhealthy foods high in fat, salt and sugar, than from fruit, vegetables, lean meat and fish.

In other words, it costs money to eat well. In all the discussion about a fat tax, aimed at deterring people from scoffing burgers and sugary drinks every day, we hear little about government subsidies for fruit and vegetables -- surely a more nuanced approach.

Meanwhile, the SVP has recorded an 80pc increase in calls for help since 2009, as survival becomes a battle for an increasing proportion of the population.

We could return to eating nothing but potatoes at every meal -- that's how our ancestors survived. Or we could stop allowing society to become ever more imbalanced, with cushioned groups still largely sheltered from the consequences of fiscal adjustment.

A recession has become a catastrophe. Does it really have to be this way?

Irish Independent

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