Sunday 23 October 2016

If you don't work the world doesn't owe you a living

Homeless single mum Erica Fleming is trying to do the right thing, but a bloated culture of entitlement persists in parts of society

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30

'Need a four-bedroom house? Five bedrooms? Sign up here and just wait to be given one.'
'Need a four-bedroom house? Five bedrooms? Sign up here and just wait to be given one.'

Summer schools give politicians a chance to say something silly once a year. On Twitter, the opportunity presents itself every day.

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Latest to fall foul of the curse of social media is Dr Bill Tormey, Dublin city councillor, farmer, author, "specialist in chemical pathology" - you name it, he can do it. Except, apparently, realise that it's best not to try making complex sociopolitical arguments on a microblogging website.

What got him into trouble this week were a few comments made as he watched an interview on Tuesday's Tonight with Vincent Browne with Erica Fleming, the young mother in temporary accommodation who's been in the news again after being refused a grant to take up full-time education.

"Rhetorical simplistic protest from Erica Fleming is an unreasonable demand for everyone else to fund her life," was how Tormey expressed himself, and he followed that up with a few more, equally pithy messages. Cue the predictable outrage as other users accused him of attacking a single mother trying to do the best for her child and improve her life. The fact that he'd sent another tweet calling her "this Fleming woman" didn't help.

Why do they do it? Twitter is a series of traps - you might dodge most of them, but one will get you in the end. It's simply not worth it.

This particular one ought to have been easily avoided. Erica Fleming is a regular in the Irish media and has elicited huge sympathy from people, not simply for her plight as she shares a single room in a hotel with her nine-year-old daughter, but also for the manner in which she deals with it.

She's funny, feisty, intelligent, articulate, dignified, formidable; for the Government, she must be an absolute pain in the rear end, and most of us say fair play to her for that. It's impossible to listen to her without being both impressed by her grasp of detail and simultaneously astonished at the bureaucratic tangle in which she now finds herself. All she wants is to go into full-time education in order to train as a social worker, but she's being denied a Back To Education allowance because she works part time, meaning her only solution is to make herself unemployed for at least nine months, which would cost the State more than just letting her go to college.

The word Kafkaesque is overused, but the social-welfare system deserves it; it's a crazy, labyrinthine mess, and if Leo Varadkar really does want to be Taoiseach, then sorting out the Department of Social Protection would be a good start to showing what he's made of.

Bill Tormey has since clarified that he fully supports Erica's desire to escape her poverty trap through education, and hopes she gets the funding she needs. It is indeed hard to think of any downside to her working towards a degree. She should be applauded for it.

Having said all that, was there really anything so terrible with what Bill Tormey said? He was wrong about her specific circumstances, but he was definitely onto something when bemoaning what he called the "slag off everyone and whinge" approach, which those loudly using Fleming's case to attack the system routinely make.

Surely, taken to its logical conclusion, it would lead to a situation where people automatically expect their lifestyles to be funded by the State with no questions asked, while others work to pay for it?

There are plenty of people in tedious, dead-end jobs who would love to go to college for the first time in order to train for a new career, but they can't because they can't afford it. No one says their situation is a national scandal. No one demands the Government immediately do something about it.

There are also plenty of people bringing up families in unsuitable, cramped accommodation in less than ideal areas who would love to move to a better address, but they can't because they're paying their own rent or mortgage, and no one ever seems to think that such people need help, because they're too busy worrying about those who sit for years on the housing list expecting the right house to miraculously fall into their laps.

Add to that the plenty of young people living with their parents as they try to save the money for deposits in order to buy their first house, always assuming that they can get a bank to prise its cold dead fingers from the money that customers so desperately need. They get some ritualistic sympathy, but no actual help. Likewise, there are plenty of couples who would love another child, but can't have one as they don't have the room or the spare income to pay for an extra mouth. Perhaps they never will.

No such problems if you're one of those welfare dependents who pop out children with alarming regularity and then simply demand more handouts for their troubles.

Need a four-bedroom house? Five bedrooms? Sign up here and just wait to be given one.

What, you have a job and pay your own way? Then you'll just have to make do with the two-bed house that you're already paying through the nose for, won't you?

Those who throw themselves on the mercy of the State don't automatically get what they want, far from it, but the point is that they frequently expect to, and feel resentment when they don't. And that sense of grievance is fanned by many in public life who would rather encourage them to stay trapped in dependency to serve as a useful symbol of inequality.

Who speaks up on behalf of young 20-somethings stuck at home with mum and dad when they'd rather have their own place?

Who speaks up for weary 40-somethings who've seen the value of their homes plummet since the crash, but who are still committed to huge Celtic Tiger-era mortgage payments and unable to sell to escape to start again because house prices have still not recovered to the level at which they bought in?

No one, is the answer. Those who are financially secure don't need any help, and those whose entire families are dependent on welfare have an army of enablers telling them that they're the victims of society, even as that supposedly awful society pays all their bills; but those in between - literally the squeezed middle - have no champions riding to their rescue on a white horse.

Maybe they should start demanding things too. The world appears to be full of people who think "it's not fair" that they have fewer nice things than someone else, and who seem to think they have a right to this house or that level of income despite never having worked a day in their lives or having any intention of doing so.

It's not considered polite these days to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving, but both undeniably exist. It's not only austerity which denies women such as Erica Fleming a home, but lots of lazy wasters who are probably ahead of her in the housing queue.

The worst thing about this attitude is that it leads to rolling discontent, because the demands of those with long wish lists but no get-up-and-go can never be satisfied; there'll always be a gap between what they have and want.

These people seem to believe that everyone else's life is a bed of roses. Well, working involves sacrifices too. Paying your own way is hard. It's just a different kind of hard. That's why it's so frustrating to read stories every winter about people on social welfare complaining that their houses are cold and they can't afford to heat them.

Welcome to the real world. Most of us can't. We sit around in coats and only light the fire at certain times. Our children's rooms are freezing too. It's just that no one would dream of demanding that the State pays for our heating.

The elderly and sick deserve all the help we can afford as a society, but cosseting and indulging able-bodied people as if they are as limply dependent as children is not psychologically healthy. It leads to an aggressive sense of entitlement, and an epidemic of self pity when people don't get what they want.

Newsflash: life isn't fair, and whoever says it can be magicked into being so is telling porkies.

Sunday Independent

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