'We are the silent poverty class . . . there is absolutely no help and no one is listening'
“BEFORE WE start”, said the woman from the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs), “you should know you’re the seventh guard in here in 10 days.” Seated in front of her were a despairing Garda sergeant and his wife. The Mabs adviser was attempting to reassure them that they were not alone.
Colm and Jean (not their real names) had been floundering for a while. Over several years, Jean had been in contact with this reporter, describing the struggle of people on so-called middle incomes: “We are the silent poverty class. We’re not the kind to ring Joe Duffy or give our names but I’m sure there are thousands like us. There is absolutely no help and no one listening . . .”
Last week, in desperation, she wrote a letter to a number of politicians, including Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar, “mainly because every time I hear him on the radio, he seems to be very anti-public service – as are all his backbench Fine Gael colleagues”.
In the letter, some details of her family circumstances were changed to protect her husband’s identity. However, The Irish Times has since met her and established the facts to its satisfaction.
The couple’s financial problems had been brewing for about seven years, since they bought a well-located but modest, four-bed semi-detached house with an extra bedroom and a better choice of schools for their children. “It was when prices were at their peak . . . We didn’t know that,” she says.
Now, after computing the household figures, the Mabs adviser was focusing on the mortgage of nearly €1,400 a month. Unless Colm started selling impounded drugs, she joked, they would have to seek help from St Vincent de Paul. She would be happy to refer them. In her long, neat columns of income and outgoings, the family’s “available income” per week came to minus €286.36. The mortgage is over the next 25 years and her husband is over 50, Jean wrote.
“ . . . Interest rates are only going to go one way and that’s up . . . I am scared for our children’s future and ours. There are weeks when I can’t put food on the table . . . To the outsider, we look like we have it all . . . Inside we are having a nightmare.
“Whilst we pay our mortgage every month we have absolutely no extra cash at all after all the bills are paid. We live in constant terror of the washing machine breaking down or the car”, she wrote.
“If it wasn’t for my mother bailing us out all the time, we would be right under,” she added.
The effect of constant scrimping and worry leaches into every crevice of family life. There are what she calls “cornflakes days”, when they eat nothing else. There is the pain of seeing their eldest child make it to a prestigious third-level course, but unable to register because they can’t assemble the fees: “Imagine how upsetting that is?”
The younger children are resigned to the fact that they can’t attend birthday parties because the standard €20 gift is way beyond the family’s means.
“We have no savings, no holiday home, no fancy cars,” she wrote. “We have never done anything to put ourselves at risk, only move house to have an extra bedroom . . . We are dying a slow death. We go nowhere.”