Working poor need more than Marie Antoinette

There seems to be a genuine disconnect in Government between the impact of austerity measures and the reality on the ground

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation was unrepentant over the bank holiday weekend, insisting the Government hadn’t misled the public over the cost of water in the run-up to the local elections. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation was unrepentant over the bank holiday weekend, insisting the Government hadn’t misled the public over the cost of water in the run-up to the local elections. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

Tue, Aug 5, 2014, 12:00

It will surely go down as Richard Bruton’s Marie Antoinette moment. We had just learned the real cost of water for families would be close to €500 a year, despite Government promises to keep average costs at half that amount. And the “free allowances” for children? Well, they would be trimmed back to cover one shower – and a single, measly toilet flush. And, then, the final indignity: charges for our water – even the bog-coloured stuff that comes out of the taps in Roscommon – will be among the highest in Europe. Our Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation was unrepentant over the bank holiday weekend, insisting the Government hadn’t misled the public over the cost of water in the run-up to the local elections. “It gives people the opportunity to manage their usage of what is a valuable resource. It costs us €1.5 billion to produce this resource. We produce water to Ballygowan standards, if you like, and we have up to now not been charging for it,” Richard Bruton said.

That should ease the pain at least: knowing that all along we’ve been bathing in twice-purified mineral water. Maybe next time, sprinkle some Gerbera daisies and rose petals in the bath, just to complete the effect. It’s how our Cabinet Ministers roll, apparently.

Impact of austerity

It’s risible in one way – but revealing in another. There seems to be a genuine disconnect in Government between the impact of austerity measures and the reality on the ground. You can see it in the sales pitch around the recovery. The message we’ve been hearing for months now is that the dark clouds are parting and a sun-lit upland has emerged. The economy is growing, unemployment is falling, the tax take is increasing, growth projections are being revised upwards.

All this is true. But peel away the shiny veneer and a much darker picture emerges. Real income is falling, chipped away by a conveyor belt of new taxes and charges. And these figures haven’t even factored in water charges. Most people are finding it harder, not easier, to make ends meet, despite repeated assertions by the Government that all our sacrifices have paid off. Wages, in real terms, have been falling for the past five years, even accelerating last year. Last week brought yet another set of figures: the disposable income of households is falling despite more people being at work. Any improvement in people’s circumstances is being devoured by new taxes and charges.

It is becoming clearer than ever that a job in itself is not a guarantee of escaping hardship. Around one in five workers is now earning less than the “living wage” – a sum above the minimum wage, but below what campaigners consider to be the minimum to make ends meet.

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