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27 November 2003 Edition

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Ahern just doesn't measure up - 600,000 live on €147 weekly but not poor!

Who is wealthy and who is poor in Irish society today? It sounds like a simple question, but if you're in government in the 26 Counties it isn't. Consider Bertie Ahern, one of the benefits of high political office is that he doesn't need the hooded anorak anymore. A higher income complete with the warmth and comfort of a chauffeured Mercedes and numerous other perks, such as free meals, phones accommodation, etc, means that Bertie is much better off now than when he was a lowly TD. But how do you measure that?

Ahern was turning on the Christmas lights in the Santry Omni Centre last week and decided to give us his views on who is poor and who isn't in Ireland today.

94% RISE IN CALLS TO SVP

According to Ahern, most Irish people are "relatively well off", but there is still a need "for all of us to give a bit for those who need it most". Ahern was in Santry to launch a St Vincent de Paul (SVP) Christmas present collection centre. Last year, toys worth more than €70,000 were collected at the centre. During 2003, the SVP have recorded a 94% increase in calls for help, so are people relatively worse or better off this year?

Ahern believes people are better off and took time out to dispute the SVP's claim that 300,000 children are in what academics term "relative poverty" because they were in families living on less than €175 a week. The SVP are not alone in this assertion, as similar claims are also made by Barnardos and the Combat Poverty Agency, using government figures.

Ahern said that "there's not those kind of figures". According to him, the "official figures of what people actually get in money terms do not show that". So what figures are there? Who are we to believe?

When it comes to simple things like measuring unemployment, poverty, or even the growth in wealth, there are, it seems, many paths to enlightenment. The Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat Government have strategies for tackling poverty and creating jobs, but government today cannot agree who are the unemployed, and when it comes to poverty there is a chasm in understanding.

CONSISTENTLY OR RELATIVELY POOR

Ahern's entry into the poverty debate hangs on the issue of relative poverty. He spoke of people being relatively better off but his government doesn't believe that people can be relatively poorer. They have to be "consistently poorer".

We have two poverty measures in the 26 Counties. Consistent poverty is the one favoured by the coalition government — that it gives a much lower poverty percentage figure is merely coincidence, as is the fact that the government also prefer the Quarterly National Household Survey percentage for unemployment, as it is half the monthly live register measure of joblessness!

So what is the difference between the two? Relative poverty is defined as the degree to which a person's income falls below a level that could be regarded as normal in society. The usual relative measures could be 50% or 60% of average disposable income.

What is interesting is that the percentage of people enduring relative income poverty has increased from 15.6% in 1994 to 22% in 2000.

Consistent Poverty uses the 60% relative income line with a secondary bizarre measure of eight different necessities, such as does the person have a winter coat, a substantial meal every day or a second pair of shoes; are they in debt or not able to afford home heating? Using this measure, poverty has decreased from 15% in 1994 to 6% in 2000 and is a much quoted figure by government sources. The coalition government aim to reduce consistent poverty to 2% by 2007. In this measure to be consistently poor you have to be earning less than €173 weekly and be lacking one of the eight necessities.

25% OF CHILDREN IN POVERTY

In October, the Combat Poverty Agency (CPA) produced a figure in their annual report saying that 25% of all children, 375,000 people, were living in homes where the head of household was earning less than €147 a week.

Using the consistent poverty measure, this figure fell to 90,000 but still means that 5,000 children will be born this year into homes suffering what even an Irish government minister would to have to concede as dire poverty. That's more than 13 children a day.

According to the CPA, more than 800,000, one fifth of the total 26-County population, are enduring relative poverty. For the Dublin Government the €147 a week threshold is not what matters. Their consistent poverty measure gives us a figure of over 200,000 people living in poverty. So, depending on which measure you use, there are or aren't 600,000 people in poverty.

POVERTY IS ACADEMIC

In October 2002, Social and Family Affairs Minister Mary Coughlan offered an interesting insight on how the government sees this 600,000 people who are relatively but not consistently poor. Coughlan said that "indicators of poverty — relative and consistent — were academic". Consistent poverty, she said was "a more accurate reflection of a poverty indicator".

Coughlan is not alone in this thinking. Dermot Ahern, the previous Minister for Social and Family Affairs, described the consistent poverty measure in April 2002 as "the best definition". His reasoning for this was that it was previous Fine Gael and Labour Governments who had arrived at this conclusion "after considerable discussion and debate".

Maybe Dermot Ahern was taking a lead from Bertie, who in February 2002, while launching the coalition's revised National Anti-Poverty Strategy, titled 'Building an Inclusive Society', said that the government was using the "best available research". Ahern went on to hype up the 400,000 people lifted out of poverty since 1996. What he didn't explain was how were they lifted out of real poverty if there are still 800,000 people in households subsisting on less than €147 weekly.

It seems that when it comes to "official figures", the government is cherry picking. This seems all the more plausible as the eight items used to gauge whether you are in consistent poverty come from the early 1980s and are not entirely relevant to modern living. Do we seriously believe that asking someone if they have "two good pairs of strong shoes" or a "warm waterproof overcoat" is an accurate measure of poverty when the amount of money they earn isn't?

The truth is that these so-called eight necessities that prop up the consistent poverty measure are lost in the language and lifestyle of a different era than the Ireland of today. Bertie Ahern has to decide which Ireland he really lives in. He has left the anorak and Hill 16 behind, but is still clinging to the past.

Who are the poor?

Fianna Fáil's Consistent Poverty figures

Children 90,000

Adults & children 200,000

Relative Poverty figures

Children in homes earning less than €147 weekly 375,000

Adults and Children in homes earning less than €147 weekly 800,000

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