Injustice of low-wage poverty exposed by Covid-19

Value of cleaners, and supermarket and shop workers now glaringly obvious

Pope Francis, in a recent address, referred to "a pandemic of poverty" throughout the world. Almost 15 per cent of the world's population live in extreme poverty – on less than $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank.

In the case of Ireland, it is estimated there were 689,000 people living in poverty in 2019, an increase of 36,000 on 2018 figures. Poverty, as defined by the Central Statistics Office, is having to live on less than 60 per cent of median income, or below €43 per day.

At the same time, the wealth level of the general population worldwide has been rising. Real income, as well as gross domestic product per capita, has increased worldwide since the turn of the century.

The truth of development consists in its completeness. If it does not involve the whole man and every man, it is not true development

This happened within the globalised capitalist economic system. Ireland morphed from high unemployment, mass emigration and capital flight in the depressed 1980s to the 2019/2020 (pre-pandemic) position of fourth-wealthiest country in the OECD and among the wealthiest in the EU (GDP per capita rankings).

This was effected largely by becoming a services trading nation which in turn was made possible by the globalised technological revolution. So is this capitalist system, which has served the majority so well, capable of extending its benefits to those living in poverty? This is a question exercising the minds of many in the worlds of economics, business and banking as well as among social justice activists.

Justice vs charity

At the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, the subject "Ethical Capitalism – Worth a Try?" was on the agenda. Pope Francis addressed the Davos meeting in support of a more inclusive world economic order, carrying on the social justice mission of the Catholic Church.

His predecessor, Benedict XVl, published the encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth), on the eve of the 2009 G8 Summit. In it he affirmed that "justice is inseparable from charity . . . The truth of development consists in its completeness. If it does not involve the whole man and every man, it is not true development."

Churchmen of other faiths have spoken similarly. Former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams brought social justice into the public square, arguing for a shift from a construct of a global economy to one of a global society.

Ethical capitalism has been put into practice in several instances recently. An example is Acumen, a non-profit global venture capital fund with the aim of using an entrepreneurial approach in reducing poverty, giving the poor a chance to invest in skills and local resources rather than depend on aid.

The Grameen Bank of Bangladesh provides credit to the poorest of the poor thereby empowering them to achieve productive lives.

Social spending

Those without adequate food or shelter cannot wait for the shift to a world order based on social justice. Social spending by governments via public housing and welfare payments must continue.

Poverty can be chronic, from one generation to the next, in which case education of the young could be an escape route

The fact that such subsidies are inadequate is evidenced by the gap filled by non-governmental agencies, often motivated by religion, such as the Salvation Army and the Society of St Vincent de Paul in our part of the world.

While such relief agencies are necessary, other causes of poverty and its complexity must be addressed. In some Third World countries, poor governance is a factor. There are a variety of causes at home, including addiction and violence.

Poverty can be chronic, from one generation to the next, in which case education of the young could be an escape route. Poverty can happen almost overnight when a home is lost because there is no money to pay the mortgage. It can happen suddenly when a business fails. In such cases, access to credit is a factor.

An aspect of poverty which has surfaced during the pandemic is low-wages poverty. Providing services for victims and the public involved not only doctors and nurses but cleaners, supermarket packers and storekeepers.

At one point it was noted that the pandemic unemployment benefit was more than some of these workers were paid ordinarily. That was a wake-up call suggesting that we consider the value we place on low-skilled but necessary work. Adjusting the wage differential affecting such workers might be a step towards reducing poverty in our society.

Carmel Heaney is a former diplomat and a freelance writer