Protecting citizens in need


FROM TIME to time we get a jolting glimpse of how the grinding effects of the economic downturn are impacting on the lives of ordinary families. MP MacDomhnaill’s letter to this newspaper last week was one of those moments.

Saddled with mortgage repayments and reliant solely on welfare support, he told of how he and his family are dealing with a new torment: hunger.

“I have nothing to give my children except bread and cereal,” he wrote. “I dread what each day brings.” Since then, a number of public figures, including Minster for Social Protection Joan Burton, have urged him to contact welfare organisations such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul in his area to get help, or to renegotiate his mortgage with the bank. He may also be entitled to a number of other welfare payments, such as the mortgage interest supplement, which he is not currently receiving.

They may well be right, but this is hardly good enough. The preservation of citizens’ basic welfare and dignity should be the cornerstone of any civilised State. It is imperative that our social security system actively works to protect those most in need. But too often those in need feel they are kept in the dark over their entitlement to forms of basic social assistance, or must navigate through a maze of bureaucracy in order to qualify for their entitlements. Unlike many other jurisdictions, we still do not have a system which automatically links citizens to all of the welfare support they are eligible for. This is just one aspect of the welfare system that needs reform. For the low paid, or “working poor”, making ends meet can be just as difficult as life on the dole. Too often they qualify for almost nothing but must pay for everything. Outside of income thresholds for benefits such as back-to-school allowances or medical cards, many in need are exposed to the full brunt of cost increases. Cuts to rent allowance, child benefit, as well as the narrowing of eligibility rules for a range of entitlements, are making it ever harder to make ends meet.

Minister Burton should consider reviewing how our welfare system operates to ensure it is reaching those who need it most. There is, rightly, an aggressive focus on welfare fraud. But we should be equally vigilant about ensuring those in need of welfare assistance get the support they need. If the safety net of the welfare system begins to weaken, there is a danger that our sense of social solidarity will unravel as well. Social assistance is a right, not a privilege. And no citizen should feel any sense of shame about asking for what they are entitled to.

Our welfare system is not simply a bureaucratic transfer for people battling to keep poverty at bay. It should express our deeper desire to ensure there is protection for all against the risks of the labour market, as well as sharing the cost burden of child rearing and care. We must ensure our social protection system provides this kind of genuine security and preserves an adequate standard of living so all our citizens can live with dignity. At a time of deep economic uncertainty, such protection is more important than ever.