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To beat poverty we must end 'us and them' labels

THERE have been many tragic consequences of the recession. Families separated by growing emigration, heartbreaking stories about people losing their homes and increasing mental health difficulties as many struggle to cope with overwhelming pressures.

In all the turmoil, conversations about equality seem a bit conceptual and redundant. We know that everyone is suffering and that everyone is struggling. But are they suffering and struggling equally?

A couple of years ago, I heard someone remark that they felt most sympathetic towards those people who had recently lost jobs and whose dream home had become a negative equity nightmare.

TRAGEDIES

The comment, while compassionate, highlights one of the real tragedies of the recession – the deepening of the "us and them" mindset that exists across class lines in Ireland.

The recession has squeezed the middle-class, and it is true that many people have suffered enormously.

But in a developed country like ours, there is surely an even deeper scandal. It seems hard to believe that nearly 100 after independence – more than 60 years after we declared ourselves a republic – so many children would be going hungry.

Some 9.3pc of children here live in consistent poverty. That's one in every 11 children. These are only the most recent figures. If you ask anyone in Barnardos, they will tell you that percentage will have gone up in the past two years.

The Report Card published this week by the Children's Rights Alliance gives Ireland an E minus when it comes to child poverty. That shows a real failure by the State.

Statistics can never capture the full picture, and we often struggle to show what it really looks like. Barnardos produces case studies to show us the children behind the statistics, but it is still difficult to comprehend.

There is still such a huge stigma and judgment around poverty that to explain the situation fully we risk public condemnation of the families we work with.

At the time of last year's Budget, we organised for some parents to talk to journalists to explain what the recession has meant to them.

In subsequent coverage, online comments berated a parent who often survives through the day on tea so that she can put food on the table for her children. People slammed her budgeting skills, her cooking skills and her parenting skills.

People refused to accept that in our slightly battered but still relatively wealthy 21st Century state we are allowing families to go hungry.

The lack of empathy is not only an online phenomenon. We talked a lot about losing our soul during the Celtic Tiger, but we haven't covered ourselves in glory in recent years either.

Some children are living in rat-infested homes without central heating and with furniture so old that one child sleeps teetered on the edge of a mattress with a gaping hole in the middle of it.

SEGREGATION

It really happens; it's true, and no amount of budgeting could help that family dig their way out of the poverty they are stuck in.

Thankfully, the critics are in a minority. The great majority of people accept that we need a State system that supports families to work by making work pay, especially low-income work.

We need universal services that break down stigma and the segregation of children across class lines and remove poverty traps such as childcare and rent supplement.

But mostly we need to stop seeing children and families who live in poverty as different.

They're not different. All parents want what is best for their children. And they should have the same opportunities as anyone else to provide it.

CATHERINE JOYCE IS HEAD OF ADVOCACY AT BARNARDOS IRELAND


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