Across this island more than 300,000 children live in poverty. Add to that the additional factors of fuel and housing poverty and the crippling social and health consequences begin to become apparent. That gives us an idea, but no more than that, of the extent of the problem and the effects that it has on peoples’ lives.
Some of the worst areas are West Belfast in Northern Ireland and Limerick City in the Republic.
Poverty exists, not because we live in the UK or because we don’t live in a united Ireland. It exists, and will continue to exist, because we live under an economic system that produces, perpetuates and profits from poverty.
Capitalism is about production and profit. It is relentless in its pursuit of both. If 20% to 30% of children live in poverty as a consequence, then so be it.
Statistics alone don’t begin to tell the full story. Lives are shortened, opportunities are lost, ambitions never realised and physical and mental health impacted by the relentless grind that is the life of every man, woman and child condemned to live in poverty.
Perverse focus on poverty
The Coronavirus pandemic has prompted a perverse focus on poverty – as if it wasn’t already a blight on society, as if its effects were only recently known or as if too can be eliminated with a double dose of vaccine.
Successive government targets, plans and strategies to tackle poverty in the Republic and in Northern Ireland consistently fallen short or are not implemented at all.
A compliant media stigmatises low income families and unemployed people through a narrative of ‘scroungers’ and ‘welfare cheats’ . We see this repeatedly in newspaper articles, editorials, news reports and in ‘reality’ series such as ‘Benefits Britain’ .
There is no such demonisation of the multi-national tax dodgers, the off-shore account holders, the employers who don’t even pay the minimum wage or for announcements like the recent £16.5 billion top up for the defence budget. These issues very seldom come under serious scrutiny and seldom if ever are they linked to levels of poverty.
Created and sustained
Poverty is not a natural phenomenon. It is created and sustained by an economic system that recognises the benefits of keeping wages and expectations low. It is managed by governments in Westminster, Belfast and Dublin that feign concern and simulate activity but do nothing to eradicate the underlying causes.
The direct link between poverty and the prevailing economic system is demonstrated by a look at just five policies which would greatly reduce levels of poverty, both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, but which run contrary to capitalist economics:
Create well paid secure employment: capitalist economies, North and South, depend on a level of unemployment, low wages, zero hours contracts and other types of precarious employment to maximise their profits.
Introduce a minimum living wage: the National Minimum Wage is not enough to make a real dent in poverty levels. That needs a realistic National Living Wage. Thousands of people are stuck in low-paid, insecure jobs, with little chance of progression and too few hours of work to reach a decent living standard. Many thousands of working people have to claim benefits to make ends meet. Modern capitalism has created the ‘working poor’.
Provide training and support for women re-entering the workforce and for working mothers: working women are the most likely to be employed in part time, non-unionised, and temporary jobs. Training, re-training and support, particularly for working mothers and women re-entering the workforce, is a vital step in escaping the poverty trap. Flexibility in the workplace and equal pay help ensure a healthier work life balance and less reliance on top up benefits.
Re-structure and radically improve the benefits system: a benefits system must provide a safety net for all citizens. It must be accessible, adequate, equitable, responsive and comprehensive. Universal Credit and other many benefits systems are designed to demean, demoralise and punish applicants
Guarantee quality, affordable public housing: high rents and the lack of available public housing are two of the major causes of poverty. In turn they contribute to fuel and food poverty and poor physical and mental health.
Of course, only a socialist society can deliver even these minimum requirements. Capitalism pursues unregulated profit at all costs. People become commodities to be bought and sold for the minimum price and the maximum return.
West Belfast and Limerick City
Finally, for now, it is worth reflecting again on West Belfast and Limerick City – the areas with some of the highest levels of child poverty on this island.
West Belfast’s MP is Paul Maskey of Sinn Fein, re-elected with 20,866 votes and a majority of almost 15,000
Limerick City’s poll topping TD is Sinn Fein’s Maurice Quinliven elected with 11.006 first preference votes: more than 1700 over the quota.
Their former party leader Gerry Adams recently defined Sinn Fein’s objective as delivering the republic envisaged by the 1916 Proclamation. I wonder if that includes cherishing all the children of the nation equally?