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From jobseekers to pensioners, candidates should vow they'll protect people's dignity

Tricia Keilthy


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Queueing for food parcels: Up to 40pc of the population could be in poverty without social protection payments. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Queueing for food parcels: Up to 40pc of the population could be in poverty without social protection payments. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Queueing for food parcels: Up to 40pc of the population could be in poverty without social protection payments. Photo: Gerry Mooney

One of the biggest issues to dominate the General Election discussion so far is the pension age. Trade unions and civil society organisations have highlighted the injustice for workers forced to retire at 65 but who are unable to access their State pension.

Those who cannot work must apply for jobseeker's benefit or allowance. The maximum rate for jobseekers is €203 per week - €60 below the poverty line. Both payments require you are capable of work and genuinely seeking work.

Testimony from workers forced to take up jobseeker's, and effectively pushed into poverty, solidified the pension age as a key election issue. All political parties have committed to either stopping the planned increase to 67, reversing the pension age to 65 or putting in place a transitional payment. Campaigners have put pensions on the agenda and prompted an important discussion on the sustainability, security, and fairness of our pension system.

The debate has also shone a light on two important, but rarely discussed, issues. The first is the stigmatised nature of the social welfare system.

Research shows welfare stigma can affect both the decision to take up income supports and the well-being of those who do. The interaction people have with the system can vary and everyone's experience is different. But the narrative in the past few weeks encapsulates a prevailing view that 'signing on' is something people feel embarrassed about.

While this is entirely valid and understandable for those affected by the pension changes, it does raise questions about how we as a society view our welfare system and how that system responds to citizens who access it. Fundamentally, access to social protection is a human right and no one should feel shame when vindicating that right.

People in a variety of situations receive social welfare payments; unemployed and underemployed precarious workers, those with an illness, disability or mental health difficulties, part-time workers, carers, parents and those experiencing long-term unemployment due to issues of intergenerational disadvantage, marginalisation and discrimination.

We all rely on the social protection system at different points in our lives, and without it over 40pc of our population would be living in poverty. A strong welfare state is something we should aspire to and a discussion on how we can make sure the system works for everyone is needed. This brings us to the second issue and the fact almost all social welfare payments are inadequate to meet basic needs.

The Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice calculates the amount of weekly income required to have a minimum essential standard of living (MESL) for 90pc of household types in Ireland.

Deep income inadequacy is now exclusively found in households headed by one adult, namely single working-age adults and one-parent households. A one parent family with two children living in an urban area and in receipt of social welfare has a weekly gap of €80 between their income and the cost of a minimum standard of living. For a single working age adult, the shortfall is €45.

The reality is even when social welfare payments help address very basic needs, without the means to access opportunities people can get trapped in poverty.

It is possible to progressively achieve adequate social welfare for all as part of the next programme for government, through a combination of increases in social welfare and investment in public services that reduce the cost of living for individuals and families.

In Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil's manifestos, both parties commit to pension increases of €5 annually over the lifetime of the next government. Fianna Fáil promises to introduce a cost of disability payment, improve in-work supports for lone parents and establish a basic income commission. Fine Gael said it will increase payments for carers and people with disabilities. The Green Party commits to introducing a universal basic income.

One reason there is a reluctance to provide people with an adequate income is a widespread assumption people will not actively look for a job if welfare is too generous. But a study published in the 'American Journal of Sociology' in 2017 found the association between benefits and unemployment depended heavily on the types of opportunities available.

Using data from 20 European countries and the US, it showed that in countries with strong protections for workers there were better job opportunities and in those circumstances, generous benefits worked to improve employment.

Therefore, rather than disincentivising paid employment, adequate social welfare combined with measures to improve the quality of job opportunities, a living wage, affordable childcare and accessible education and training, helps people access sustainable, good quality work.

In this election campaign candidates should not only be asked if they are committed to ensuring older people have an adequate income in their retirement but also if they are committed to a social floor that protects people from undue hardship, values caring work, supports people into decent work and fulfils the basic human right of living with dignity.

  • Dr Tricia Keilthy is Head of Social Justice at the Society of St Vincent de Paul

Irish Independent