Poverty And Inequality

 

Research on the extent of poverty and inequality in Irish society has become more focused and relevant to the formation of policy in recent years. Yesterday's annual report from the Combat Poverty Agency amply illustrates the trend. Calling for a shift in mind-set from cautious conservatism towards more radical investment in expanding health, education and housing services, it emphasises that this can improve the quality of life for all, but especially for low income groups and the poorest. A country as wealthy as Ireland has become can afford such priorities.

This is a courageous and topical conclusion by an agency funded largely from the Government and the European Union. It addresses an acutely political question with reference to the most up to date documentation of poverty in Irish society compared to other similar societies. It insists on the key relationship between public expenditure and poverty - without under-estimating the essential contribution full employment makes to reducing absolute impoverishment.

The report usefully marshalls research findings to illustrate how ambitions arising from its operating mandate to work for the prevention and elimination of poverty relate to the actual performance of Irish society. Despite the improvements over recent years (likely to be confirmed as more up to date data become available) a stark pattern of absolute and relative poverty emerges. Ireland has one of the highest levels of income inequality, the worst life expectancy, and the highest level of child poverty in the EU. Golf courses are twice as numerous as playgrounds. Housing and transport are distributed in a similarly unequal fashion. It seems certain that these indices of deprivation overlap substantially with one another and with others such as illiteracy to afflict particular communities of people most severely.

Total Irish tax revenues were 32.8 per cent of gross domestic product in 1997 compared to 37.4 per cent in 1987 and an EU average of 41.5 per cent in 1997. This is the background against which poverty in Ireland should be evaluated. The extraordinary economic growth and full employment of recent years have substantially improved the record, but do not alter its unequal distribution. That will require a new set of political priorities, looking beyond the mantra of low taxation and spending that has dominate Irish policy-making in recent years.

Indications that the Minister for Finance, Mr McCreevy and the Tanaiste, Ms Harney, may now accept the need for a re-evaluation of these priorities, as a general election approaches, shows they appreciate public disquiet about them. As the Combat Poverty report points out, everyone's quality of life is affected, with the poor standing to gain most from such a re-orientation. It is a safe bet to say the next election will be won and lost on the most convincing plans to tackle these questions now that primary economic development has been achieved.