GORDON* SPENDS a lot of time in his local branch library. “I wouldn’t be a big reader, but I like to go there for a few hours every other day and read the papers,” he says, “The fact is I can’t be heating the house when it’s cold.”
Like many older people, Gordon lives alone. He has a contributory pension that gives him €230 per week to live on, an amount he is finding harder and harder to stretch. “I don’t have a lot of outgoings and I try to be clever with my money, but it’s tougher every month to make the money last,” he says, “Especially around Christmas when we used to get an extra payment. That would always go on presents to the grandkids. The last few years, I feel embarrassed by the small presents I get them. My son understands, but how do you explain to a 10-year-old that ‘Granddad can’t afford to get you what you want’?”
The number of older people in consistent poverty has doubled
Statistics released yesterday by the Central Statistics Office indicated that older people’s incomes had dropped, on average, 5 per cent between 2010 and 2011, and that the number of older people in consistent poverty had doubled in the same period. There was also a marginal increase in the number of older people who are deprived of two or more goods or services that are considered essential for a basic standard of living. These range from being unable to afford a warm waterproof coat to being unable to have a meal with meat, chicken or fish every second day.
Gordon considers himself lucky, despite suffering from ‘enforced deprivation’. “I have my health”, he explains, “Some of my friends from my Over 50’s club have chronic conditions and are paying out a fortune every month in prescription charges. €1.50 per prescription might not seem like a lot of money, but if you have diabetes, arthritis and a heart condition, then that can be anything up to fifteen different prescriptions every month. I hope I hold on to my health, because I don’t think I can afford to get sick.”
‘Troika vs Grey Power’
Despite the reality Gordon experiences, there’s still a willingness in both the media and the general public to see older people as having escaped the worst of austerity. When Department of Social Protection sources leaked the possibility of a troika-backed €10 per week cut to the state pension to the Sunday Independent, the backlash was immediate. Commentators asked how the Government could dare take on the ‘grey vote’. Economists said the only reason not to cut pensions was the five-year election cycle and the damage it would do to re-election hopes. One key truth was overlooked, however, in the battle of ‘Troika vs Grey Power’: many pensioners can’t afford a cut to their income at a time when costs are rising unabatedly.
Proponents of cuts to pension levels often point to figures that tell us that older people’s income went up by 48 per cent during the Celtic Tiger years. That’s an undeniable truth, but far from a massive increase that allows pensioners to live in luxury; this boost simply brought the levels of pensioners in relative poverty from 44 per cent in 2001 to 14 per cent in 2008, according to research from UCD’s Geary Institute. While relative poverty has been replaced by consistent poverty as a measure in CSO statistics, it is still worrying that the number of impoverished older people is increasing.
Their income for the rest of their lives
The debate over whether to cut the state pension will rage on as long as we consider it in the same category as other social transfers. Pensioners are seen as benefiting at the expense of the young unemployed and parents of school-going children because their payments all come under the same heading of Social Protection. What sets pensions apart, though, is that they are not short-term stopgaps designed to help people through a particular period in their lives. A person’s state pension is supposed to their income, and an adequate income at that, for the rest of their life. A cut to the state pension would be a blow to the 84 per cent of older people who need that payment to stay out of poverty.
Gordon, meanwhile, says he will get by. “We all have it hard these days,” he says, “and I heard Leo Varadkar on the radio a few weeks ago saying that TDs won’t be getting their increments and that’s a cut to their wages. Well, pensioners haven’t had an increase in five years, and we won’t be getting one this year. That’s our cut. It has to be. Food is more expensive, heat is more expensive, the old allowances cover less and less every year. If they cut the weekly payment, I just don’t know what I’ll do.”
*Gordon’s name has been changed
Peter Kavanagh works in communications and advocacy with Active Retirement Ireland and is an expert on Social Protection with AGE Platform Europe. To read more pieces by Peter, click here.