(From an article in the Examiner newspaper)
"Despite all our affluence, poverty and illiteracy are still flourishing
WHILE supping a nice pint of stout during the week, I was startled by the landlady who had been quietly reading the newspaper.
Suddenly she slapped it on the counter, looked up and, with an air of disbelief, demanded to know: "Is it true that almost a quarter of the people of Ireland can’t read?"
The truth of what she had just read she found hard to grasp.
She was genuinely shocked, almost is if she had learned that prohibition was to be introduced by Justice Minister Michael McDowell to reduce road fatalities and save on garda overtime.
What she found incredible was that in one of the wealthiest countries in Europe so many people couldn’t read.
Yet, it is almost true.
Bertie's boys can read the picture..
In fact, a total of 22.6% of the Irish population were identified as functionally illiterate. In other words, they couldn’t do what my publican was doing — read the paper.
That means that more than one in every five people cannot read this newspaper, and because of their near pauperised state, probably cannot afford it either.
That shameful figure is connected to another — 19.4% of the population is at risk of poverty. These conditions invariably go hand-in-hand.
They are just two of the depressing figures contained in Developing a Fairer Ireland, the very aptly entitled review produced by the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI) this week.
Understandably, Fr Sean Healy, the director of CORI, warned that despite dramatic economic success, Irish society still has many problems. But he added a very telling comment — some of the problems continued "almost as if they were acceptable".
He could have said they were endemic.
What he listed in this context — and in no way is it comprehensive — included growing levels of poverty, unequal income distribution, high levels of illiteracy (including early school-leavers), insufficient social housing, growing social exclusion and problems of racism and discrimination.
There’s another list, equally incomprehensive, that he might have mentioned to explain the existence of these conditions.
We tolerate unconscionable waste of money by the Government and its agents. The tens of millions spent on e-voting, PPARs, decentralisation and junkets, not to mention the army of advisers and consultants hired by ministers or their departments and various other state agencies.
The health service is typical of what we put up with. Senior management in the HSE were given €1.7 million in performance-related bonuses since it was established 18 months ago. Within nine months, its chief executive, Prof Brendan Drumm, received a bonus of €32,000.
For what? For doing their jobs. But we still have a dreadful health service, which seems to be overloaded with management types rather than health professionals, and is exceptionally bad value for the €12 billion spent on it.
Last year almost 22,000 operations were cancelled by 34 hospitals all over the country largely because of a shortage of beds.
Despite this, the HSE has no plans to increase bed numbers. Both the Irish Medical Organisation and the Irish Hospital Consultants’ Association would seriously beg to differ.
They insist that bed capacity is essential if the health service is to be improved.
Then you had benchmarking for the public service negotiated behind closed doors and nobody really knows what they are doing to justify that extra money.
"In 2006 it is clearer than ever that Ireland is a country of growing socio-economic divides. Any society is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable people. By this measurement, Ireland is failing", said Fr Healy.
In other words, the rich grow richer and the poor get poorer.
What stands between about 20% of the population and poverty is our social welfare system. Even so, 784,497 people — or one in every five — are still below the poverty line.
Of the 25 members of the EU, Ireland has the shameful distinction of having a worse poverty rate than Hungary, Slovenia or the Czech Republic.
According to the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) in Cork, there are generations of the same families who are "locked in a vicious cycle of poverty".
It should know because the 700 volunteers in the city and county deal with them all the time.
"Despite the so-called Celtic Tiger, many thousands of families and individuals still rely on SVP to make ends meet", the regional president, Mairéad Bushnell said on the occasion of the society’s 160th anniversary in the area.
DON’T mention anything about rising tides lifting all boats to her because, while the country’s social services have improved, they’re still dealing with increasing levels of relative poverty.
According to Helen Johnston, director of the Combat Poverty Agency, despite a strong economic performance and commitment to poverty reduction, we still have an estimated 275,000 people who struggle on a day-to-day basis to make ends meet.
These are people who are living on less than €185 per week and have to go without many of the basic necessities such as food, clothing and heat.
This means that 7% of the population are consistently poor despite the fact that, officially, the target of the Government is to reduce the number of consistently poor to under 2%.
It is difficult to comprehend that in a country considered to be very wealthy, there are increasing levels of poverty. The high incidence of illiteracy and early school leaving are major factors.
One of the very few things the Government is excellent at is producing reports, strategies and action plans on how to reduce poverty, but it does very little to actually implement them.
They’re also good at producing statistics attempting to show they are doing something. A good example would be Social Affairs Minister Seamus Brennan. At a function this week he said that in the last five years social welfare rates had risen by 55%, while the consumer price index increased by 15% and earnings by 28%.
If those existing on, or under, the breadline could live on Government statistics, they would suffer from obesity, but they will never have that problem.
I mean, what difference does it make to somebody unemployed and poor to tell them that earnings have gone up by 28%, apart from making them more depressed? And Mr Brennan would have to tell them because they couldn’t read it in a newspaper for the simple reason they can’t read.
Enterprise Minister Micheál Martin said that Fianna Fáil was braced for a tough test at the polls, but from his following comments it seemed a foregone conclusion that Bertie Ahern would lead the next government.
All that remains to be decided is what kind of coalition it will be.
The prospect of Fianna Fáil being re-elected for the third time in a row could be included in Fr Healy’s list of problems that continued "almost as if they were acceptable".
By a strange coincidence, Fianna Fáil dropped 7% in popularity since the last general election, which is the same as the percentage of the population living in consistent poverty.
The PDs support is 2%, which is the Government’s target to reduce persistent poverty.
And that coincidence is about the only thing either of them have in common with poverty."