Many Irish people feel that the burden of austerity is not being shared equally
Opinion: Vincent de Paul client profile has expanded out to people in employment and people with unmanageable debts
Many of those who advocate austerity are unlikely themselves to have to face juggling their bills. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Making more than 400,000 visits to Irish homes each year gives the 11,000 members of the Society of St Vincent de Paul a unique insight into the difficulties people face in the apparently never-ending circle of austerity we have experienced for the past six years. For thousands of families there is no obvious light at the end of the tunnel.
The families we visit are not just those on social welfare. They include people in low-paid employment, the self-employed and people in good employment with debts they cannot handle. The profile of those seeking SVP assistance is radically changing.
The SVP’s provision of direct assistance has more than doubled since 2007, and our spending in helping families with their energy costs has tripled in the same period.
The spirit of hopelessness has been fuelled by a single-minded Government focus on austerity, with no alternative views being entertained. There is also a huge feeling of unfairness felt by the people supported by SVP. Despite protestations by politicians, economists, bankers and the Troika that we all must share the burden, many Irish people feel the burden is not being shared equally. Many of those who advocate austerity are unlikely to have to juggle their weekly bills to decide what should be paid or to come to the SVP because their washing machine has broken down.
Nobody doubts that Ireland’s economic situation is difficult. But it seems our lives are being controlled by an ever smaller number of people, who have a singular view: maintain austerity. Regardless of whether next week’s budget takes €3.1 million or €2.5 million out of the economy, we face further cuts in services and increases in charges. And we can expect the same again in 2014, if the Government sticks to its targets.
Tackling the deficit fairly
It is the responsibility of Government to lead and to make the choices that will tackle the deficit fairly. We believe Government can choose to close the gap between revenue and expenditure while protecting vulnerable people and the services they rely on.
Austerity on its own does not work. We need to stimulate the economy to promote jobs and give hope to the unemployed and young people. We must look at other options for balancing the national finances: stimulate growth and get rid of the mountain of debt, which has been unjustly landed at the doors of ordinary people.
We need more radical approaches to creating jobs and stimulating growth. We continue the shame of exporting our youngest and best talent. We must find ways to stop this. It will be a shame on all of us if in 2016 our young people are still forced to emigrate. Calculated risks will need to be taken. It is better to take those risks than to continue with mass emigration and unemployment.
More charges and tax increases will simply drive more and more people to poverty, again something we do not want to see as we approach 2016 and the celebration of a proclamation that “guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens” and that promises to cherish “all the children of the nation equally”.
The cumulative impact of austerity measures to date has been devastating. The SVP strongly opposes any further reductions in social expenditure as the people we assist have suffered enough.
The plan to put in place an economic programme to run to 2020 announced by Mr Noonan recently must include a road map for recovery for all of Irish society so that people are protected and can retain their hope and optimism for the future.
However, an economic plan is not enough; it must be accompanied by a social plan that outlines how Government will allocate the resources necessary to tackle unemployment, poverty, social exclusion and disadvantage.
Too many people, the services they rely on and their opportunities have been sacrificed in the name of economic recovery. Impossible demands have been made of those with the lowest incomes and least resources. Any plan for Ireland must address these issues so that those who are struggling are reassured that we are heading towards a positive future.
Social justice must be at the centre of a nation that cares for its people equally. That has largely been ignored, while political and economic issues have been the focus of debate. Now is the time to discuss the changes needed and to prepare for a time when – hopefully – the nation begins to emerge from this difficult period.
There are no easy answers but that is no reason not to commence the debate. Everyone should be involved.
What better time than now, as we approach the anniversary of the 1916 Proclamation, to examine our progress in achieving its signatories’ aspirations in terms of equality and social justice?
Geoff Meagher is national president of the Society of St Vincent de Paul