Rich land, poor land

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00

New maps based on census data depict Ireland’s affluent and deprived districts.  The recession has affected all areas,  but not equally  

How affluent or deprived are you? Your hair-raising post-Christmas bank balance or maxed-out credit-card statement might make you feel especially poor this month. But a much more accurate and longer-term insight into how well off you really are is based on where you live.

Statisticians know that your street or neighbourhood contains a treasure trove of detail. This data indicates the extent to which you’re likely to have a decent job, a spacious home and a healthy lifestyle. It shows that the location of your home influences how well educated your children are, and what prospects they have.

Some of the conclusions to be drawn from this geographical data are obvious. The neglected complexes of local-authority flats in inner-city Dublin or the tree-lined avenues of the city’s embassy belt tell their own stories. But there are also shifting and largely hidden tracts of affluence and deprivation in large parts of rural Ireland, and among the newly built commuter belts that surround our cities.

Trutz Haase, a German-born independent social and economic consultant, has developed an index that shows the extent to which every neighbourhood, suburb and village in the State is affluent or deprived: right down to street level.

The measure is based on key indicators from the census such as education levels, housing quality, employment figures and other indicators (see panel), and is transposed into a colour-coded map.

It’s now used by Government departments and health authorities to help guide policy on where primary-care centres should be built, where bus routes are needed, or where job-creation programmes should be focused.

The latest version, based on the 2011 census results, is being published for the first time in The Irish Times. As the dust from the economic collapse settles, it shows a country changed dramatically by boom and bust.

For the 15 years of economic growth from 1991 to 2006, a rising tide of affluence lifted all boats, according to the index. Even the poorest areas did comparatively well, as unemployment declined and people became better educated. But the downturn has plunged most parts of the country back to where they were more than a decade or so ago.

“We can see that the recession has affected everywhere,” says Haase. “Many of the gains that were made over a 15-year period of economic boom have been undone in the space of a few years, but some areas have been affected more than others.”

The hardest hit

Nowhere is the decline in affluence more striking than in the outer stretches of the capital’s commuter belt. Parts of Cos Louth, Longford, Offaly, Kildare and Roscommon have experienced a dramatic reversal of fortunes.

“These are the areas where young, relatively affluent couples were for lifestyle reasons,” says Haase. “The houses were more affordable because they were an hour or an hour-and-a-half’s commute.”

Take an area such as Rochfortbridge in Co Westmeath, about 80km from Dublin. Its population swelled dramatically during the boom, and was driven mainly by young families relocating there from the capital.

Unemployment among men in Rochfortbridge has jumped from 7 per cent in 2006 – below the national average – to about 25 per cent in 2011, significantly above the national average. The increase in the proportion of people living in local-authority rented accommodation is up by some 29 per cent during the same timeframe, compared with just 6 per cent nationally.

It’s still a relatively affluent part of the commuter belt, especially compared to many urban or rural areas. But because its rise was fast, its decline was faster still.

These wider findings in the commuter belt don’t come as much of a surprise to Prof Mary Corcoran of NUI Maynooth, a sociology lecturer who has studied the growth of the suburbs. While people who rely on welfare have been cushioned from the worst effects of the downturn, this is a category of people who have fallen farther in relative terms.

“People living in the commuter belt are very much the squeezed middle,” says Corcoran. “These are the people who were getting on the ladder, moving out to a nice, bigger, more affordable house. But they were hit hardest. They may have jobs in construction, the bank or elsewhere. Their kids are growing up now and life is becoming even more expensive.”

Despite massive investment and urban regeneration in some areas over the past 20 years, many of the traditional urban blackspots remain locked in deprivation. The most socially excluded areas in the State are still areas of the capital such as Ballymun, Finglas and some of Tallaght, as well parts of the cities of Limerick and Cork.

With unemployment rates of up to 65 per cent, they are also marked by some of the highest concentrations of local-authority housing and lone parents and the poorest levels of education in the State.

According to Haase, the concentration of these social problems leads to a “neighbourhood effect”, compounding deprivation through additional factors such as lower-quality teaching, lower levels of expectation for children and peer pressure on young people.

There is one notable exception. The overall picture of affluence has been transformed by an influx of relatively affluent residents into new apartment complexes in Dublin’s inner city over the past 20 years. The colour-coded maps indicate that large swathes of the inner city along the docklands and city quays have changed from red, signifying deprivation, to bright blue, signifying affluence. For example, the proportion of residents with third-level education in part of the north-east inner city rose from around 10 per cent to 50 per cent between 1991 and 2011.

It seems like a stunning success story of urban regeneration. But a closer look reveals a much more complex story: it shows how the growth in the population has masked areas of extreme deprivation that persist.

Take the area around the capital’s docklands. The areas close to the IFSC where the new apartment complexes have been built show levels of affluence way above average. But just metres away are pockets of extreme deprivation in local-authority flat complexes near Seán MacDermott Street and Summerhill.

Rather than transforming the entire city, urban renewal in Dublin resembles a finely knit patchwork of highly affluent and disadvantaged developments, side by side.

The proximity of affluence and deprivation hasn’t necessarily helped the indigenous population, says Seanie Lambe, the chairman of the Inner City Organisations Network, a forum for issues in Dublin’s northeast inner city. Residents in gated apartment complexes tend to live in isolation from the surrounding community. In theory, new apartment complexes were supposed to have 20 per cent of units set aside for social and affordable use, but few have materialised, says Lambe. Developers either paid money to local authorities to escape the obligation, or simply built social units elsewhere.

“One of the selling points for Spencer Dock, for example, was that it was free of any social housing,” says Lambe, who is also on the council of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. “We, the local community, objected. But the developers said they’d build it on another part of the site. Then the crash came. It was never built.”

Positive legacy

While many of the gains of the boom, such as high employment rates, have been wiped out, Lambe says there is a positive legacy: education. The focus on early intervention has raised the quality of early-years childcare, he says, while the number of people completing their Leaving Cert and going on to third level is increasing.

Deprived areas, of course, aren’t limited to the cities. There is rural deprivation, although it is more hidden. The index finds that the more remote areas of Donegal and Mayo are extremely deprived. They are being ravaged by emigration, unemployment and a lack of opportunity.

The lack of infrastructure to get to and from work also plays a big role in determining how deprived some of these areas are, says Trutz Hasse.

If marginalised areas are still suffering, what about the most privileged? The latest data shows that everywhere, including the most affluent areas, has suffered during the downturn. However, in relative terms, the gap between the most privileged and the most disadvantaged remains as wide as ever.

The suburbs in southeast Dublin, such as Blackrock, Foxrock, Ranelagh, Sandymount and Stillorgan, are among the most affluent in the State, much as they were 10 or 15 years ago. Levels of unemployment are very low, at between 5 and 10 per cent, and the proportion of highly skilled individuals is very high: between 70 and 80 per cent of adults have a third-level qualification. The numbers of lone parents are very low, while less than 1 per cent of housing is owned by local authorities.

In general, the most affluent areas of the country are distributed in rings around the main cities and towns, representing the suburbs and the traditional commuter belt. In fact, the five main cities withstood the economic downturn relatively well when compared with the outer commuter belt in the greater Dublin area.

The fact that the gap between the haves and the have-nots hasn’t narrowed isn’t a surprise to many. Mary Corcoran says this has been a clear trend for generations: middle-class areas tend to shore up their advantage through investing in education, for example.

“Many people in places such as south Dublin believe they can secure their children’s future by often disengaging from public schools, for example, and investing in private education,” says Corcoran. “It’s not necessarily the quality of education as much as the social networks that can give them an advantage in later life.”

The extent to which the most affluent and deprived areas have remained largely the same during the boom and the bust raises some nettlesome questions. What was the point of expensive regeneration and anti-poverty strategies if, after years of investment, they still lag just as far behind the most affluent areas?

Ireland isn’t alone in failing to revitalise deprived communities. Studies in the UK show that despite a century of redistribution of wealth and various anti-poverty strategies targeted at some parts of the country, most remain, in relative terms, as deprived as they ever were.

Pobal is a State body that manages hundreds of millions of Government money to fund programmes aimed at promoting equality and development in marginalised areas. The organisation’s programme manager, Jerry Murphy, says its programmes focus on improving outcomes for individuals, rather than an entire community. If a person gets employment and improves their prospects, he says, they may move out of an area. Then they are replaced by someone in an equally needy situation.

“We try to ameliorate the lack of opportunity faced by an individual,” he says. “We’d love if we had the level of resources that you could equalise opportunities for everyone in a disadvantaged community, but no country has that at their disposal.”

An island divided

In an ideal world, there would be a smaller gap between the affluent and the deprived. There are strong economic arguments for boosting equality of opportunity. A society with full equality of opportunity lessens the effect of poverty that comes about when individuals don’t reach their potential. As a country competing globally, Ireland will need the highest quality labour force possible.

While Nordic countries have managed to narrow the gap through decades of spending and investments in social safety nets, Ireland still seems to be a divided and segregated island.

“People talk about Britain as a class-based society, but look how class segregated we are,” says Corcoran. “Just mention any suburb or neighbourhood in Dublin and people have connotations about it . . . it’s very possible for someone living in a privileged community to never ever meet someone from a deprived area.”

Economic meltdown, high unemployment and cuts in Government spending may change many people’s views. The instability of recent years and the crisis of capitalism has raised questions about the kind of society that should be built on the rubble of the past. Politics is in a state of flux and the electorate may well come looking for new approaches.

The Irish public, though, has shown little appetite for greater equality. As the economy boomed, the public was asked to choose between the economic models of Boston or Berlin. It chose the former, with low taxes and limited public services. The result was predictable: a gap between rich and poor that is among the widest in western Europe.

Hasse says research consistently shows that achieving a better social mix in housing is the single most effective way of addressing problems of deprivation. But an initiative to set aside 20 per cent of new developments for social and affordable use was watered down by the Fianna Fáil-led government in 2002. It meant the provisions never really took root during the boom years of rapid construction.

“I think that would have helped greatly if it had been followed through,” says Hasse. “However, middle-class society is happy to have these communities grouped away somewhere else. Unless these issues are addressed, there will continue to be repeated poverty and deprivation.”

The affluence index

The index of affluence and deprivation, officially known as the Pobal HP Deprivation Index, uses a series of indicators from the most recent census to measure the affluence or deprivation of all parts of the country.

It was commissioned by the State agency Pobal from the social and economic consultants Trutz Haase and Jonathan Pratschke.

It measures 10 key indicators including the proportion of skilled professionals, people with high levels of education, employment levels, single parent households, etc.

The index does not use personal wealth, debt or income (this isn’t included in the census), though Haase points out that these indicators are closely correlated with education, skills and labour-market status, which are covered in the census.

“This index really measures the extent to which an area can maintain its class position over time,” says Haase. “Education and skills are a much stronger indicator of income-generating strength over time.” He argues that negative equity, for example, isn’t a reliable long-term indicator of wealth of affluence as a person can ultimately trade their way out of this over time.

These figures are used to generate maps that are detailed to individual street level, based on “small-area statistics”, or pockets of the population of, on average, between 80 and 100 households.

These maps are available from Pobal, while Justin Gleeson, the data and technical manager with the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis at NUI Maynooth, has produced the maps accompanying this article.

The affluence index