From Socialist Voice, December 2009

Fighting cuts in social welfare

The Government is consulting the Combat Poverty Agency about the effects of proposed cuts in social welfare and eligibility for medical cards. This agency is part of the Government set-up, and so it will be constrained by the powers that control it. What is needed is a much stronger demand for an examination of the effects of the cuts, and transparency in how the assessment is made.
     The Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI) and other NGOs point out that using the cost-of-living index as it is now calculated is not relevant to people at the bottom of the ladder: it includes too many non-essential items that are not bought by this group of people, as they spend almost all their income on housing and food. Instead people living on low incomes and on social welfare should themselves be asked how they manage. Sociologists picking out a typical shopping basket is not the way to see how people are managing, when instead they could be assessing the first-hand evidence of the people experiencing it.
     One is reminded of a Government scheme for local communities a few years ago in the Camden Street area of Dublin in which a social worker recommended that people bake their own bread, which they did, only to find that when the ESB bill came it was beyond their ability to pay it.
     Where are the forums of low-income and social welfare recipients? Where are the focus groups? Instead we have economists pointing to relative wages in other countries, such as Britain. They deliberately leave out the fact that the cost of living there is far lower than in Ireland. And in any case England has one of the most class-divided societies, with vast slum areas suffering shocking deprivation.
     We get studies from around the European Union pointing out this or that relative difference, but all from the economists’ point of view. Different indexes are used by the United Nations, such as the Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, and relative poverty indexes based on four or so areas of deprivation. NGOs use the relative poverty index, but while these are a very effective way of drawing attention to poverty they are used only in looking at macro-economic policy for states. The people themselves are just numbers. If their voices were heard in representative groups that are consulted by Government agencies, and directly in the media, instead of the daily dose of prejudice by ill-informed people who love to go on about how social welfare recipients have such a good life, a true picture would emerge.
     For those who attack the most vulnerable in society the answer is, if it is so good why don’t they take it up, as they think firstly it so easy to obtain it and secondly so easy to live on it.
     Let’s have a proper assessment of what it is like for people to live on low incomes and on social welfare. Again and again people are divided by slanders that are orchestrated by the ruling elite and their accomplices in the media. When there are enough jobs for all at decent wages, then social welfare policy can be looked at anew. We look forward to such a time; but don’t hold your breath.

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