One of the more fascinating elements of the 2004 study by the "Social Partners" into the nature of those receiving Rent Supplements was that a huge group - amounting to almost one quarter of all recipients, were not unemployed, lone parents, disabled or retired. They were, to use a euphemism rarely heard outside of social welfare circles, recipients of "supplementary welfare allowance."
Now most of you have probably never heard of this allowance. What it actually is, is an equivalent to what in the UK is called income support. Its basically social welfare for people who have no income, but who are not disabled and are not seeking employment. Amiguous though it may seem, what that amounts to is a "Loafers Allowance" for those who don't want to work and have no excuse not to, but who for some reason have been permitted, by the state, to be pensioned off at the taxpayers expense. In many cases this involves homeless persons, but I am quite sure that there are not 13,000 homeless people living in rented accomodation, so the question has to be asked - how has a "discretionary" payment become a way of life for such a huge number of people? In addition to this, this 13,000 are also getting their rent paid, probably at least 70 euro a week, so why are the state paying over 10,000 people over 250 euros a week - almost the minimum wage, to sit there doing nothing?
In 1997 one of the UK Labour Party's first actions was a broad attack on the huge culture of dependency that the welfare state, even in Tory time, had mushroomed. A huge population were living on income support on quite low incomes, generally on the edge of - if not in - poverty, many of them through their own quite midguided choice. Sharp cuts on income support, particularly for the unemployed and lone parents (who at the time almost 60% of were totally welfare dependent) has resulted in nearly 2 million people coming off welfare from 1997 to 2006. This is a huge achievement. While there is admittedly still a problem with the whole welfare-to-work approach, there is no doubt that a huge number have been lifted out of poverty by this programme, whatever its faults.
Yet the Irish government has been hugely increasing social welfare payments in Ireland since 2001. From 1996 to 2001 the number of people on social welfare in Ireland fell as payments dropped due to high inflation and large increases in earned income. This acted as a huge incentive to work. However from 2002 on the rates of social welfare were raised every year by at least 2 to 3 times the rate of inflation and increases in earned wages. The net result has been a steady climb in unemployment and other forms of income support as salaries fail to keep pace with the rises in social welfare rates. At the same time, the burden on the taxpayer has grown and rates are now extremely likely to be untenable in any future recession.
Why has this been allowed to happen? Part of it is to blame on well-intentioned pressure from the so-called social partners (who in reality exclude the huge number of private sector workers and their families who are not union represented, and who have no right to be union represented) and trade unions who asked for large increases as part of negotiations. Yet nobody has commented on the steady increase in welfare dependency over the last 5 years.
Now the latest move is to change the way in which lone parent allowances are being paid. And again "socially concerned" organisations are likely to skew changes in ways that will penalise the taxpayer. At present a lone parent who takes a full time job will lose every penny of her (or occasionally, his) allowances, yet serial single mums are taking weekly payments of as much as 500 euros a week - or as much as somebody on an above average salary. Why has this been allowed to develop, unfettered in a supposedly liberal capitalist economy?
Sadly, this debate has been scourged by myths, moral self-righteousness, resentment and sometimes plain incorrect information. For example, the notorious incident involving a certain Irish Times journalist entirely managed to eclipse his perfectly valid point that the level of cash subsidisation given to one parent families in an age where the cost of living is escalating fast is questionable and unfair.
New plans to give payments to parents even where the father of the child is present are fraught with complications. However the move to gradually reduce payments, and limit them to up to 8 years are welcome, however they will be heavilky resisted by pressure groups:
"Nevertheless, the move will be welcomed by those dealing with lone parents on the ground, although any move to make back-to-work elements of it compulsory will be resisted.
Already, One Family, a lone parents lobby group, has warned that such a move would deprive lone parents of the option of staying at home to raise their children." (Examiner 20/03/06)
May I ask why lone parents have an exclusive right to stay at home whilst a married woman with children doesn't? However the plan to gradually withdraw payments is sensible. Allowing women to draw almost unlimited levels of state subsidy similar to the SWA recipients I mentioned above, is nothing more than a shameful waste of resources that would be better spent on training and education for employment for those who want it - espeically in a country where only 60% of adults work and we have to import workers from all over the globe to make up the difference.
Finally, why can't this money be diverted to provide proper childcare and nursery facilities for those working people on low incomes who really need it, instead of simply funding what may end up as a negative lifestyle choice!