Ireland doesn’t just have a homelessness crisis. Ireland has a poverty crisis, writes Donal O’Keeffe
Imagine you’re a single person, with no dependents, living in rented accommodation. Let’s say your rent is €150 per week. (You’re unemployed, so you think of everything in terms of weekly instalments).
Your job-seeker’s allowance (or whatever we’re calling the dole these days) is €188 per week. If you qualify for rent allowance – assuming your landlord accepts rent allowance – that’ll cover some but not all of your rent. Let’s say it’ll cover €100.
Once you’ve paid the balance of your rent, you’re left with €138 to live on for the week. That’s to cover essentials like food, light and heat. Is your car an essential? Is your mobile phone? Is broadband? Is a TV? You’ll have to make those choices, and a hundred more, every week, every day, and you won’t stop thinking about those choices because peace of mind is one more luxury poor people can never afford.
Say you’re offered a job. Tenner an hour, say. Not great, but better than the dole and it’ll get you out of the house. You’ll be meeting people, and you’ll feel better about yourself just to be doing something. You’ll be one of Leo Varadkar’s people who get up early.
A 40-hour week on a tenner an hour gets you about €350 a week after tax. You won’t go mad on that, but it’s better than nothing. But hang on. Now you no longer qualify for rent allowance.
So, once you pay your rent, you’re left with €200 on which to live for the week. So your 40 hour week just left you better off by the princely sum of sixty quid. What’s that? You had to travel to work? Oh dear. And now you no longer qualify for a medical card and have to pay for any medical expenses that might come your way? Oh dear indeed.
In pure monetary terms, on a tenner an hour, it’s not actually worth your while going to work at all. This is what’s usually called ‘the welfare trap’. It’s around this point you’ll be told – mostly by spokespeople representing business interests – we have to ensure that welfare doesn’t pay more than work. That’s to suggest that welfare is too high, rather than the obvious converse: that wages are simply too low. Mind you, people saying welfare or bottom-of-the-barrel wages are too high never seem short of a few bob themselves.
Let’s imagine a further wrinkle. Let’s say your employer says they can’t afford to employ you full time, so it’ll have to be classed a part-time job. Maybe they’ll be able to give you 40 hours most weeks, but they can’t guarantee it. So now you’re on a zero-hour contract.
Now you don’t know from one week to the next – or maybe from day to day – whether you’ll work, or how many hours. But that’s okay, says your employer, generously, you can sign on the days you’re not working. So now the taxpayer is subsidising your employer’s business and you’re on what those of us familiar with part-time work call the ‘noughts and crosses’, heading to the dole office every week to try and remember if the X marks the day you worked or if that’s the O. You’ll be entitled to about €30 a day for the days you don’t work but you’ll be means-tested, so it might be less.
Means-testing will be the bane of your life, because the welfare officer will look at your bank statements across the full year. So say your part-time job is busy in the summer and quiet in the winter. Maybe you’ll work 40 hours a week in the summer and 20 hours or less in the winter. Here’s the killer: because you earned (say) €350 a week in the summer, that’ll go against you in the winter, even though you have less than you’d get on the dole. And you still won’t be able to get rent allowance. That you won’t exactly be overpaid in the summer means you’ll never have the chance to save a few quid against the hard times.
No matter how hard you work, if you’re on or about the minimum wage, or in a zero-hour contract, you’ll never get ahead. That’s not a welfare trap. That’s a poverty trap.
(I’ve only looked here at a single person with no dependents, but you can extrapolate from there the situation if you had kids to feed).
The average industrial wage in Ireland is in the region of €35,000 per annum. 30% of workers earn less than €20,000. According to the CSO, 9% of workers live in actual, consistent poverty. Two years ago, the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, described that as ‘morally unacceptable’.
I would agree with Enda, but it should be noted that since Fine Gael took power in 2011, homelessness is up a staggering 81%. One obvious contributory factor is soaring rent prices in the face of stagnant – if not falling – wages.
There are currently 8,000 people homeless in this country, 3,000 of them children. Father Peter McVerry reckons the true figure – if you take into account those one step away from homelessness – could be double that. He also, crucially, points out that a fifth of homeless people are actually in jobs.
Think about that. 20% of homeless people are working. Think too about the people hovering on the edge of homelessness, getting their meals in soup kitchens because they’re forced to choose between paying their rent and buying groceries.
Ireland’s homelessness crisis is only the tip of the iceberg that is Ireland’s poverty crisis. It simply isn’t possible to deal with one without dealing with the other. Until we ban such precarious labour practices as zero-hour contracts and replace the minimum wage – currently €9.25 per hour – with a living wage – €11.70 – more and more people will fall through the cracks.
As usual in Ireland, the question is whether we actually care.