'We are the silent poverty class . . . there is absolutely no help and no one is listening'

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

“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.”

Piano or swimming lessons, are unthinkable. She pays the TV licence in dribs and drabs to keep out of the courts. A repair man arrives and gives an estimate of €100 to fix the dishwasher. Later, sitting in the unheated house, she says her parents, a couple on “ordinary pensions”, will probably pay for the dishwasher and the college fees.

How can this happen to a family with an annual income of about €75,000 gross (including overtime and allowances) last year? To a Garda officer in possession of that holy grail of the permanent, pensionable, public sector job? To a family that didn’t party, or buy the Spanish villa, that always paid its bills on time and made sacrifices to maintain the health insurance payments? The payslip is revealing. The health insurance payment to the Garda scheme is €75 a week. The pension-related payments amount to even more.

Some years ago, they prudently joined the Garda credit union’s billpay scheme by which all their bills – including the mortgage – were calculated on a budget plan, and €528 a week deducted at source to pay them (identified as “St Raph BV” on the payslip).

However, price rises in gas, petrol and electricity mean the sum is no longer sufficient to cover the bills. Garda overtime is not available anymore, they say, and the allowances are under threat. They know that the €77.06 weekly rent allowance (designed to cover the cost of gardaí being obliged to live away from their home area), will probably be a target of the cuts.

After six years’ service as a sergeant, the basic salary before allowances is €51,084 but clearly, their day-to-day living expenses have come to depend on the allowances and child benefit. Not featured in the payslip is a payment of €500 a month, after tax, to cover unsocial hours. For Colm, this is compensation for six consecutive nights a month of 10-hour duty, plus Saturday and Sunday work.

After all deductions, he is left with about €109.22 net on his weekly payslip to cover all other costs. Their great fear now is of losing any of those allowances, which Jean describes as a lifeline. If the rent allowance was cut, for example, he would be left with about €30 on his payslip in an average week to cover essential outgoings.

The picture painted by the Mabs adviser is not quite as cheerful. She calculated the family’s net pay and child benefit total at €807.37. After totting up the mortgage payment and items such as fuel, food, clothing and footwear, education/medical/ transport, bin charges etc, she saw no way of getting their outgoings below €1,100 a week.

Seven years ago, said Jean, the price of their new house included €36,000 stamp duty. “And now they are coming after us for property tax and child benefit cuts . . . We are not entitled to a grant or any help . . . At least if I was on social welfare, my [child] would get a grant for college, I would get the interest paid on my mortgage and I would get medical cards. At the moment, I can’t afford to bring my children to the doctor.”

She wonders in the letter how they can be expected to give more, concluding: “We are a sinking ship and nobody is throwing a rope.”

In a post on Thursday evening, Kathy Sheridanadded the following:

A few points are worth repeating about the article and the background to its publication. My first duty was to protect the family’s anonymity, so significant details such as the number of children were withheld.

Verification of the garda’s weekly income was available in the form of his payslip and we had permission to publish it in its original form, with name and identifying details redacted. A view was taken by senior editors, however, that certain other details might have identified the payee so this too was withheld. 
The family has been characterised by some as foolishly clinging to “middle-class” fixations, such as private health insurance. The wife has explained that her husband is over 50 and in stressful work. They do not smoke or socialise. She is acutely aware that buying a house at the height of the property boom was a poor decision in hindsight. As other have argued here, they are hardly exceptional in that.
The payslip and the Mabs analysis of weekly expenditure confirm that there is no financial “black hole”. There have been efforts to supplement their income. 
The point of the article was not to defend the past or present choices of any individual but to provide an insight into how the timing of that decision to buy a home and the cuts in public service pay and overtime have affected one middle-income public servant’s family. Contrary to some of the comment here, I have often written in the past about the difficulty of persuading such people to give interviews. The harshness of some of the criticism directed at this family explains why perhaps. 
I accept that the figures could have been better explained in the original article.

To clarify : the garda sergeant earned €75,000 gross LAST year, including allowances and considerable overtime. That was clearly an exceptional year. 
Now, the family’s total weekly income, including child benefit, is €807 net, according to Mabs. The following is its projected weekly expenditure, according to a schedule prepared by the same agency : 
Mortgage (interest only): €280.00
Mortgage Protection Insurance €15,00
Buildings/Contents Insurance €7.00
Food/Housekeeping €200,00
Electricity Usage €25.00
Heat/Fuel Usage €25.00
TV licence €4.00
Waste Charges €5.00
Telephone/Other utilities €43.00
Transports costs €127.50
Educational costs (college registration fees, children’s uniforms) €75.00
Clothing/Footwear €60.00
Medical costs (insurance) €73.23
Repairs & Maintenance €20.00
Other Expenditure €84.00
Credit Union €50.00
Total €1,093.73
Not included are weekly pension-related contributions of around €80. 

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