As a country, we have moved, slowly and perhaps rather reluctantly, away from the conservative idea that the poor somehow deserve their poverty, towards a recognition that poverty is structural and can and should be eradicated -- a way of thinking that is based on a commitment to human rights.
Even during the boom years, there were still some families in this country where children went hungry to school. But there is no doubt that there were impressive improvements in social provision, much of it targeted specifically at one-parent and jobless families. The statistics for 'consistent' poverty -- the kind of grinding, multigenerational poverty from which it is almost impossible to escape without targeted help -- improved from a massive 15 per cent of the population in the late Nineties right down to a little over four per cent in 2007.
Improvements in social provision in this country came from a very low base, however. Ireland has never had the kind of welfare state that is taken for granted in most other northern European countries, and the undoubted improvements we have had in social payments need to be seen in the context of a deeply divided society with poor healthcare cover and an education system that is only nominally free.
Having made strides in our social provision, it would be disastrous if we were now to lose those gains and let our most vulnerable families start to slide backwards. And there are clear signs that that is happening. Consistent poverty statistics are moving up again, and there has been a huge increase (38 per cent) in the space of a single year (2009) in child poverty. One in every six children in Ireland today is at risk of poverty.
There is a good deal of public discussion about the 'new poor', middle-class families who, often for the first time in their lives, are finding that they can't manage to pay their mortgages and also meet their household bills. Meanwhile, the difficulties of what we might call the 'old poor' do not always get the same level of public attention. Housing may be a new problem for the middle class, but it has always been a problem at the bottom of the economic pile, and previous government commitments to the elimination of homelessness have now been shelved.
Unemployment is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of recession and it brings not only financial hardship but also psychological stress and loss of dignity. In times like these, unemployment can no longer be thought of as a blip in a person's life: as unemployment grows, it becomes more and more difficult for a person to climb back out and re-enter the job market, leading not just to poverty but to despair.
In addition to soaring levels of unemployment, we also have a large number of families where a parent is at work, but where their income is too low to live on. The working poor, especially families who are just above the eligibility level for various benefits, are particularly badly hit by increases in the cost of sending children to school (including new charges for school transport), the new Universal Social Charge and sharp increases in energy costs.
Social provisions have been sharply cut, as part of the Government's austerity programme to reduce its outgoings. Some efforts have been made to soften the effects of reductions in child benefit on the poorest families, but the criteria are restrictive, and the fact is that austerity measures are hitting the poorest families and people with disabilities hardest.
Meanwhile, the wealthiest members of society, many of whom share responsibility for the unsustainable boom in property prices, the collapse of the property market and of the banking sector, and the consequent credit crunch which is stifling business and making it impossible for young people to enter the housing market, are being shielded from the worst effects of the austerity measures. Large pensions and 'golden handshakes' are their reward for bringing the country to its knees, while the very poorest among us seem to be bearing the brunt of economic disaster.
Not only is this grossly unfair, but it is seen and felt to be unfair, and the business and corporate elite would do well to restrain their calls for the recently imposed ceiling of €500,000 on salaries for top jobs in the banking and business sectors to be raised. Such special pleading does not resonate well with people who are struggling to put food on the table.
There is a perception, and it is largely justified, that no one has been held responsible for reckless trading, gross negligence or the withholding of information, while poor people are treated a lot more harshly by the law.
Ireland remains an affluent country with relatively high GNP per person and Ireland's tax take is one of the lowest in the European Union. It is obvious that our most vulnerable citizens should not be expected to bear a burden created by the most affluent. Taxes on higher-income earners have to be raised and there is a case for benchmarking salaries of senior public servants and fees paid to consultants contracted by the public service against international pay rates. It is also important that the high rates of allowances, exemptions and reliefs on personal and corporate tax, which benefit the very wealthy, are addressed and that a minimum effective tax rate is enforced.
If we do not move swiftly to ease the impact of cuts and recession on the country's poorest families and to make those who are better placed to do so pay their share of the burden, we are in danger of storing up social unrest and disaffection. As a first measure, it is imperative that the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion, published in 2007, is implemented and that the Combat Poverty Agency is reinstated as an independent body to monitor the situation.
Sr Stanislaus Kennedy is a social activist and campaigner for social justice