FERGUS FINLAY: I can’t see anything fair about driving more children into poverty
THERE are things about every budget that we all have to grin and bear. But I’m afraid I have to say that at first glance there are aspects of betrayal in this budget.
Much has been made of the need to be fair. I can’t see anything fair about driving more children into poverty. In a week or so the Central Statistics Office will publish a report that outlines the number of children in Ireland who live in consistent poverty. That’s a phrase with a very particular meaning. There are likely to be children who are hungrier, colder, more subject to colds and ’flu and conditions like asthma because of their housing conditions.
For the last couple of years that number has been rising. Next year it will rise further, as a direct consequence of today’s budget. And that’s not acceptable. It crosses what Jack O’Connor of SIPTU referred to last week as the threshold of decency.
I’ve argued here and elsewhere that there is a case for reform of the child benefit system. Reform always has winners and losers. In the case of child benefit, reform could well mean that better-off families could get a bit less, so that poorer children could get a bit more.
But there is no case whatsoever for a straightforward cut of €10 in the rate paid in respect of every child. That cut will quite simply have a disproportionate impact on the poorest children in Ireland. When you add the cuts in clothing and footwear allowances and the extra PRSI on very low incomes, this budget will devastate thousands of families.
In our projects in Barnardos, we give the children we work with a nice breakfast and a cooked lunch. It used to be a great way for children to get to know each other, to share. More and more, we’re feeding children simply because they’re hungry. And if you talk to the cooks who work in Barnardos’ projects, you’ll discover that many of them are stocking up with extra for Mondays, because the kids are hungrier on Mondays. And they’re sending little wrapped parcels of food home for siblings.
That’s a simple fact. And it’s the reason why it’s just simply outrageous that cuts to Child Benefit went ahead without reforms or compensation to support families on low incomes, especially given the recent report of the Advisory Group on Tax and Social Welfare. That decision is a blunt and brutal attack on family incomes with no sense of fairness or equity.
But it’s not the only indefensible measure. I know this newspaper will be full today with reaction to aspects of the budget that strike people in particular ways. I have to be honest. As someone who owns a house with a large mortgage, I’m prepared to pay a property tax. I’ll begrudge it, but I’ll pay it. As someone with a management salary, I’d be prepared to pay a higher Universal Social Charge. As someone who isn’t too far away from being a pensioner, I’d be prepared to see a restriction of something like free travel.
But I’m not prepared to see children go hungry without calling it what it is. It’s a betrayal of the principle of fairness.
This budget could well lead to the development of a two-tier system that segregates our children by social class and family type. This kind of short-term planning to meet short-term goals is counter productive and will become institutionalised, causing difficulties in developing a comprehensive universal system down the line in the best interests of all children.
It too goes directly against the value of early years services for children and the ethos of fairness and equality for children in Ireland.
In our heart of hearts we all know that we didn’t cause this mess that Ireland is in. And we all know that no-one is going to be able to clean it up without asking us to make sacrifices.
Sacrifices must be fair — and that means that those who can afford to do more must be asked to do more. It doesn’t mean that already poor and struggling families, with little or no prospects, must be expected to be poorer and to struggle harder, to the point of despair. That’s why, when all is said and done, this is a fundamentally unfair budget.
© This appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Thursday, December 06, 2012