Breda O’Brien: Fintan O’Toole’s appeal on child poverty is worthy of support

‘Until Irish people can re-discover the sense that the poorer kids are also our kids, a crusade to end child poverty will never receive the support that it deserves’

Fintan O'Toole's impassioned appeal for a broad coalition to end child poverty (Opinion, May 26th) is more than worthy of support. It is shameful that so many of our children lead stunted lives simply because of where they are born and the opportunities that they lack.

Ending child poverty is also an issue that could draw on the strengths of two different kinds of analyses. Broadly speaking, the left tends to prioritise redistribution of income and State intervention in the form of social services. The right tend to look at the negative impact of family fragmentation, and to prioritise community and charitable initiatives.

In fact, both approaches are needed. There are times where redistribution not only works, but is essential. For example, levels of gross income equality here are extremely high, but when you allow for the impact of taxes and social welfare, inequality levels return to about the EU average.

This is not anything to be particularly proud of: try living, even for a couple of weeks, with the grinding stress that is normal for a poor person in Ireland. Averages begin to look like what they are – statistics that often conceal harsh realities.


Struggling to pay for and falling behind on basics like gas and electricity, and being threatened with being cut off, is draining and humiliating.

Grind down

So is knowing that your kids are afraid even to mention a school trip that costs a fiver, or that their shoes are falling apart and you are out of ideas as to how to replace them. These daily realities grind people down and exacerbate the health problems caused by an inadequate diet.

However, it is also true that redistribution of income and massive interventions by State agencies are not the full answer either.

There has been a great deal of discussion of Robert Putnam's latest book, Our Kids. In this book, Putnam gathers a wealth of research on the inequalities in America that are trapping young people in poverty.

Putnam’s earlier work popularised the notion of “social capital”, that is, the vital importance of relationships and networks that build mutually advantageous co-operation and trust. For example, membership of a civic organisation, including churches, mosques and synagogues, leads to an increase in social capital.

It is amusing to see Putnam described in one review as a hero of the American left. In Ireland he would be considered at best a centrist, and probably to the right because of his well-researched views on family.

Putnam believes that the “neo-traditional model” of family, that is, stable, durable marriages of biological parents, where both parents are likely to work but also invest significant time into parenting, leads to a range of positive outcomes for children.

However, he believes that in the US this has become the province of the well-off, while in low-income areas families are fragmented and fragile.

“In the upper, college-educated third of American society,” Putnam writes, “most kids today live with two parents, and such families nowadays typically have two incomes. In the lower, high-school-educated third, however, most kids live with at most one of their biological parents, and in fact, many live in a kaleidoscopic, multi-partner or blended family, but rarely with more than one wage earner. Scores of studies have shown that bad outcomes for kids are associated with the pattern now characteristic of the lower tier, whereas many good outcomes for kids are associated with the new pattern typical of the upper tier.”

The kind of instability experienced by poorer kids was summed up by a conversation between two kids overheard by an Irish primary school principal working in a disadvantaged area.

“I see that Mark is your dad this year. He was mine last year. He’s great, isn’t he?”

Kids from poorer families miss out in all sorts of ways, including in reading time and in vocabulary development, all provided for kids in better-off families by their parents.

Kids from better-off families also have access to greater social capital. Their parents know people. If they suspect their child has ADHD, they cannot only pay for an assessment but they are likely to know someone who knows someone who is an educational psychologist who is brilliant with kids with ADHD.

In a poorer family, that is a fantasy. We might criticise “helicopter parents” who are over-involved in their children’s lives, but Putnam shows the major advantage it gives to middle class kids.

There are huge cultural differences between the United States and Ireland, but perhaps the most useful insight in Putnam's book is in the title – Our Kids. When he was growing up, when people spoke of "our kids" they did not mean their own children, but the kids of the town.

It was a time of far less social division, when people had a sense that the whole community had responsibility for the younger generation. Analyses are important, but solutions are far more difficult. Until Irish people can rediscover the sense that the poorer kids are also our kids, a crusade to end child poverty will never receive the support that it deserves.