Sunday 25 September 2016

Our society can never be fair while we are leaving the poorest out in the cold

Published 21/01/2016 | 02:30

Mike Allen, director of advocacy with Focus Ireland. Photo: Damien Eagers
Mike Allen, director of advocacy with Focus Ireland. Photo: Damien Eagers

Visiting someone in hospital recently, I fell into conversation with a country man who said he sold eggs for a living.

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Puzzled by 'egg man' as a job description - unless he operated a battery system or his layers were egg-making marvels - I inquired how many eggs he might sell in a week.

"Eight or 10 dozen," he said. And could he make a living from it, I asked? After all, profit margins must be tight, with supermarkets squeezing suppliers to keep prices low for customers. He said it was sufficient for his needs: "I live very simply on my own."

I studied him: between his outdoors complexion, and a lived-in tweed jacket with a cap jammed into the pocket, he looked as if he'd just stepped off the set of 'The Quiet Man'. He seemed to represent a bridge to the past, with his talk of small-scale egg production and modest requirements. (Though perhaps he ought to have included the State pension in his tally.)

Once, eggs provided farming families with useful additional income for minimal outlay. Keeping hens and selling their eggs was regarded as women's work but it helped many small farms to stay viable. Eggs were a substitute for cash, used to barter with shopkeepers for tea, sugar and other necessities.

The value of the egg contribution is reflected in an old saying that when someone appears to be doing well, they must be keeping hens. My egg man didn't look prosperous. When he said he lived simply, I had a mental image of just how frills-free that existence must be. Yet he seemed content with a life that centred on looking after his chickens, whose laying skills helped to look after him: a barter system of another kind.

During the Celtic Tiger years, our aspirations were starrier than simply wanting basic requirements to be met. Arguably, Ireland changed more during that decade than over the entire history of the State. Now, a chastened society has emerged in the wake of collapse. But as the recovery proceeds, we can see that some are not just being left behind, but left out in the cold.

In Irish society today, there are people who do not have enough for their needs. Homeless families, for example. Unaffordable rent increases have led to an escalation of homelessness, and the stark reality of figures - more than 1,000 children being raised in hotel rooms rather than homes - underlines ongoing policy failures to solve the problem.

A century ago, some 20,000 Dublin families just about survived in putrid one-room tenements. Today, hundreds of low-income families live in emergency accommodation which government ministers admit is unfit for purpose. And so Irish children continue to be deprived of a normal childhood, let alone the bright prospects envisaged by the Proclamation.

Mike Allen, director of advocacy with the charity Focus Ireland, told RTÉ radio this week: "Nama is going to build 10,000 homes over the next number of years, 2,000 of those next year. Only 10pc of those are going to social housing, the rest are going to be sold for a profit. If only half of the homes … were made available to these families, we would end family homelessness."

Simple, when presented in those terms. But the policymakers judge otherwise. Market forces and other reasons are cited for not doing the right thing - for failing to shelter the most vulnerable.

There is some dispute over how equally the burden of the financial collapse has been shared, with the maintenance of social welfare rates plus additional taxation for higher-paid workers cited as evidence of fairness. But according to Patrick Honohan, in a speech two months ago to the London School of Economics when he was still Governor of the Central Bank, "a proportional lowering of income surely means a more severe welfare impact on lower income groups." So the fiscal adjustment hurt the poorer most.

A builder did a job for me yesterday, and said he had taken a minimum wage out of his company for four years while paying off his debts. But prospects are looking up now, with orders for work flowing in. However, three of his children emigrated to far-flung places during the lean years, and he doesn't believe they will return. So while he is emerging from the financial collapse, his family has scattered. Perhaps it would have happened anyway, with young people seeking adventure. Except it wasn't choice, but lack of choice, which sent them to Australia.

This is the generation which couldn't find a decent job in Ireland. The generation which couldn't buy a house unless family money or land was behind them. The generation which continues to face uncertainty in the rental sector. The generation for which post-Tiger Ireland is a cold house. No wonder those who could, bailed out. The loss of their talents will be felt in years to come.

Those who remain are not all survivors like the builder. Some are struggling still. That egg man has enough for his modest needs, but families without homes can't say as much.

The centenary celebrations are under way but our shortcomings in constructing a fair society - especially visible in relation to housing, a fundamental human right - compare shoddily against the 1916 generation's hopes for a new order.

From a building boom to a housing crisis to the spectre of children raised in emergency accommodation for prolonged periods - that's a legacy which undermines the sacrifices of the past. I think we all know we can do better.

Irish Independent

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