Ireland still paying price socially for economic crash, study finds

Some 117.5m people in EU at risk of poverty

Portuguese president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, with the help of volunteers, gives food to a homeless man living in the streets of Lisbon, Portugal, this week. Photograph:José Sena Goulao/EPA

Portuguese president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, with the help of volunteers, gives food to a homeless man living in the streets of Lisbon, Portugal, this week. Photograph:José Sena Goulao/EPA


Ireland, along with most EU member states, is paying the price socially for the economic crisis triggered in 2008, and has still not returned to the levels of “social justice” it enjoyed at that time, a new study finds.

The report highlights a substantial gap between northern and southern Europe – in the crisis-hit countries in the south, an above-average proportion of children and young people remain at risk of poverty and social exclusion.

In Greece, the proportion of children suffering from severe material deprivation – undergoing conditions of severe hardship, and no longer able to afford fundamental necessities of daily life – has tripled since 2007 to 26.7 per cent.

But there is an upward trend in social indicators, driven by a recovery in labour markets and specifically the fall in unemployment in the EU to 8.7 per cent last year from 11 per cent at the height of the social crisis in 2013.

The report by the German Bertelsmann Stiftung, a philanthropic foundation, uses a Social Justice Index (SJI) combining 38 measures of poverty, education, the labour market, health, intergenerational equity, social cohesion and non-discrimination.

Scandinavian countries

The Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden and Finland are at the top of the league table. Ireland rises from 19th to 17th in the table although its SJI (5.66) has not yet recovered from its 2008 level (down 0.25 percentage points) and remains below the EU average of 5.85 (which is down 0.16 percentage points).

The scale ranges from Denmark (7.39, +0.16) to Greece (3.7, -0.60). Joblessness in Greece runs at 23.7 per cent – with almost half of its young people unemployed (47 per cent) – while in Spain it stands at 19.7 per cent. Youth unemployment rates are falling, however, and they stand at 7.1 per cent in Germany, the top performer.

Overall some 117.5 million people in the EU remain at risk of poverty – 35.6 per cent of the population in Greece along with 27.9 per cent in Spain and 28.7 per cent in Italy. Many of the crisis-struck states continue to tread water or show only very minimal progress on poverty prevention.

‘Populist governments’

The proportion of students leaving school with no qualifications has fallen throughout the EU from 14.7 per cent pre-crisis to 10.7 per cent in 2016. But the authors criticise disturbing developments in a number of eastern European states: “We are seeing the right-wing populist governments in Hungary and Poland in particular making far-reaching changes to the education system and thereby reversing past achievements,” said Daniel Schraad-Tischler, SJI project manager.

Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and France show the largest shortcomings with regard to the relationship between social background and educational outcomes.

In many countries, the report warns, reforms are also necessary to protect older people , as a downward slide looms if no changes are made. Overall the rate of old-age poverty has not yet increased but Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Croatia show just how devastating insufficiently reformed pension systems can be for future developments.

In Latvia, which brings up the rear in this regard, the share of older people at risk of poverty and social exclusion has risen from 33 per cent in 2011 to 43.1 per cent today.

The report sets the scene usefully for Friday’s EU Social Summit in Gothenburg where EU leaders are set to endorse a framework for social justice harmonisation across member states in the form of the “European Pillar of Social Rights”. The pillar’s 20 priorities closely mirror the categories incorporated in the SJI.