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8 September 2005 Edition

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Prioritising Poverty



What do 37 million Americans, 1.7 million Iranians and 861,000 26-County citizens have in common? They are all deprived and enduring poverty and in the last week new poverty figures and studies have been published for each of these populations. They show poverty increasing in the US and Iran, while two new studies by the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin for the Combat Poverty Agency have shown regional disparities in poverty across Ireland. It says that 400,000 low-income Irish households are at risk of falling into severe poverty if the Irish economy wanes.

Poverty in the US

Hurricane Katrina gave ample examples of how the poor are vulnerable when economic and other shocks hit an economy. The US Census Bureau found last week the number of Americans living in poverty rose to 37 million, up from 35.9 million in 2003. The percentage of people living in poverty rose to 12.7%, with poverty rates growing every year that George Bush has been US president. Six million more US people are in poverty since Bush was first elected.

In New Orleans over the last week the reality of this poverty has been all too clear. More than half the households there earn less than $25,000 annually, with 30% of people living in poverty. The median annual US income is $44,389.

Low-income families in New Orleans didn't have a car so had difficult leaving New Orleans before the hurricane and they don't have credit cards, so couldn't book into motels and other accommodation like wealthier income earners could.

In the same week that the implications of poverty in the hurricane hit areas of the US were finally getting a media airing, the state government in Ohio was found to have left $559 million earmarked for tackling poverty unspent in a state where census figures recorded a 1% increase in the population suffering deprivation and poverty.

Poverty in Iran

Another example of poverty in a seemingly wealthy state is the 1.7 million people estimated to be in poverty in Iran this week, according to Davoud Madadi, the caretaker Minister for Social Welfare and Social Security.

In Iran, the poverty is extreme, with hunger and shelter being issues and the aim is to move people from absolute poverty to relative poverty. Absolute poverty is where people are missing basic necessities. The Iranian Government is planning the introduction of social-welfare payments to assist these groups in society.

400,000 Irish vulnerable

The second of two ESRI reports published in recent weeks has found that even though there has been an economic boom in the 26 Counties for the past 15 years, the impact on those suffering poverty is mixed.

Using a relative income poverty measure which calculates how many workers are earning below 60% of the average wage, the ESRI found that 400,000 of the 861,000 people earning below the 60% marker in 2001, the latest year for which figures are available, were part of what the ESRI calls a "vulnerable class", who would be at risk of falling into poverty if the Irish economy faltered. The last economic blips here were the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreaks and the global fall in demand for goods and services in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York. With oil prices hovering in the high $60 mark, we will know soon enough if the Irish economy is faltering again.

Social apartheid in rural Ireland

However, even without an economic shock there are still serious poverty issues in Ireland that need to be tackled. Poverty rates in Donegal are nearly double the 26-County average, while parts of South Dublin have poverty rates half the average percentage. People living in rented local authority housing are five times more likely to suffer from poverty than any other group.

These were just some of the findings from Mapping Poverty, the second recent study into 26-County poverty conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute for the Combat Poverty Agency.

Using for the first time data at local council level, the Combat Poverty report was able to measure area based poverty in the 26 Counties and the findings are startling. Where you live in Ireland and other factors like age and educational attainment are significant determining factors in whether you are poor or not in modern Ireland.

Highest and lowest poverty rates

Donegal, Mayo, Leitrim and Longford have higher rates of consistent poverty than the 26-County average. People living in consistent poverty can be at risk of not being able to afford basic necessities such as clothing and food.

Donegal's rate of consistent poverty is 1.9 times the 26-County average. Mayo, Leitrim and Longford were 1.5 times the average, while Carlow and Kerry were 1.3 times the average.

Dublin City Council area rates for poverty were equal to the national average, while Fingal was half the average with South Dublin slightly higher at 0.6 of the average rate of consistent poverty. DĂșn Laoghaire Rathdown came in with the lowest figure, at 0.4 of the average rate of poverty.

The Dublin figures highlight the weakness of the measure, as they don't highlight the extreme pockets of poverty in the city. They do, though, shed some insight on the huge levels of wealth in the city that imbalances the ESRI figures.

The housing issue

Helen Johnston, the Director of Combat Poverty, pointed up the issue of housing in contributing to higher incidences of poverty. She said: "This report shows that risk of poverty was more than five times greater for local authority tenants than for people living in other types of housing." Johnston said that the failure to reserve 20% of new developments for social housing was "very disappointing".

Jim Walsh, Combat Poverty's head of policy and research, took the analysis further. He said that building houses was only part of the problem and that "integrated housing is crucial in bridging the social divides".

Housing and other factors such as low educational attainment are reinforcing deprivation. It is, according to Walsh, a "form of social apartheid".

Combat Poverty have recommended that "if we are serious about eliminating poverty, we must ensure that national policies take account of regional and local trends". Local authorities have also a key role to play, according to Johnston.

This is only the latest in series of reports on poverty in Ireland published over the last 12 months. We have yet to see the coalition take action on any of these, which leaves the question as to how many reports does it take before a government responds?

Making Poverty History

Across the world, from the richest states to the poorest, there are billions living in poverty and after the heady days of Live8 and the Gleneagles summit, it is clear that there is still a job to be done in every nation, every region, every town. Next week, the United Nations is holding the largest summit ever in its history, with 191 nations attending.

Already, the event is in crisis because of US reluctance to sign up for the millennium development goals and attempts to water down any commitments it is asked to sign up to. For example the US want to change the name of the Millennium Development Goals to the "internationally agreed development goals" to downplay any commitments made.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan summed up the core issues this week when he said: "These are simple objectives. People want to live in dignity. We have to respect their human dignity and we have to give them dreams and targets to meet."

It seems this week that these rights are being denied around the world. How can you expect nations to take global responsibilities to tackle poverty when across the world the same states have difficulties fulfiling the same responsibilities to their own citizens?

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