Paula Clancy: 'We have to make right choices that will build a fairer society'
Almost 20 years ago, concerned about the extent of economic inequality in an Ireland being presented as a prosperous and forward looking society, I and others set up TASC (Think Tank for Action on Social Change), a public education charity aimed at raising knowledge about the negative consequences of inequality.
We sought to make Ireland a more equal society. We have had five different governments in varying combinations of political parties and philosophies, a "boom" and a "bust", in large part a result of the increasing concentration of wealth over previous decades.
This, as we know, was followed by close to a decade-long programme of penalising austerity.
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So what has changed? Very little, it would seem.
As an upcoming TASC report will show Ireland continues to be among the most unequal countries in Europe when it comes to market-income equality. While mitigated through State supports that enable us to hold the line as average across Europe, we are still not seeing the kind of political action to indicate a fundamental improvement is on the way.
It is now almost a truism to reiterate that economic inequality is not an inevitable outcome of a market economy but is rather a result of conscious political choices. The fact we have had little or no change in inequality levels in almost 30 years suggests, at the very least, an abject failure by policy makers.
We live with a set of particular labour market institutions that, as a TASC report will again set out in 2019, actually predisposes Ireland to high levels of inequality.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
Over the years, TASC, and indeed others, has developed a series of evidence-based policy proposals which if acted upon would do much to alter this dispiriting picture. As we face into a new year with local and European elections, and the ever-present likelihood of a general election, TASC will propose a new plan for a more equal, prosperous society.
The first thing we have to address is our unfair income distribution model. Economic inequality tends to be driven by the gains of the upper classes and rich at the expense of the working class and the poor.
For Ireland, most recent research indicates the bottom 40pc of our population receives 22pc of the national income while the top 10pc receives almost 25pc.
In Ireland, the top decile has been doing very nicely over the past 20 or 30 years, the top 1pc in particular. Shamefully, the bottom 40pc has received much less.
Looking at TASC's most recent pieces of research on health inequality and precarious work in particular, it is evident too many people are at even greater risk of poverty and deprivation because they are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, can't visit their GP because of the high cost of health, or can't work because of the high cost of childcare.
If we are to move towards a more equal society, we need to implement - not just talk about - a 'Marshall Plan'-type programme of affordable home building, implement Sláintecare and see early childcare as an automatic state provision.
Finally and critically we have to tackle our "flexible" labour market. In reality, as TASC research on precarious work has so vividly demonstrated, it is workers who offer great flexibility to employers.
Ireland has among the highest rates of deprivation among employed persons in the EU-15. Union membership and coverage are low when compared to other European countries, and labour protection is comparatively weak.
We don't yet recognise the right to collective bargaining, which is an accepted process in most of the most egalitarian societies in Europe.
The negative consequence of this is an unusually high incidence of low pay, precarious working conditions and a high risk of working poverty, felt most acutely by younger workers and women.
We do have choices. There are alternatives available that can make Ireland a more equal place.
Dr Paula Clancy is a founding director of TASC