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Column: ‘The first thing I always pay is the rent’ – families under pressure

The recession is hurting everyone, but children are among the most vulnerable. Finola Halligan of Barnardos describes her experiences on the front line of poverty.

Image: Barnardos

“People may say it’s only €20, but €20 is like €1000 when you haven’t got it.”

THIS SIMPLE STATEMENT comes from a parent I interviewed as part of research to look at how living on a low income impacts on parenting. It paints a picture familiar to me. One of the families struggling with financial difficulties so severe that €20 can mean the difference between food on the table, or a utility bill being paid.

One parent I spoke to said: “The first thing I always pay is the rent. If I went without electricity or gas I know we could play games, play cards, light me candles and put on extra clothing on or wrap blankets around us.” This portrait of a family huddled together to keep warm, playing games by candlelight is Dickensian. Yet it is a reality for too many parents and children in Ireland in 2011.

In my day to day work in Barnardos I see the impact of the recession on children and families, many of whom are struggling to cope against a backdrop of reduced household income and widespread cuts to services. Many of these families were already struggling before the recession and the current economic climate is making an already dire situation worse for many children.

Cuts in social welfare and child benefit, coupled with reduced working hours and increased taxes, have reduced families’ incomes and parents are experiencing increased stress levels trying to provide for their children’s basic needs. Many of the parents I have spoken to over the past year talk about feeling stressed regarding the obvious things like paying bills and having enough money for food.

‘He tells his friends he’s not bothered going out’

Parents are stressed about burdening their children with money worries and the impact that that can have on children. As one parent told me: “I do find that I tell them a lot of things that I maybe shouldn’t. I say ‘I didn’t get to pay this bill’… I shouldn’t really tell them that.”

Parents are constantly worried about the effect the lack of money is having on their kids, especially when they can’t afford to give their children the things they need – like new shoes and clothes or money for going out with their friends.

One mother explained that her 14-year-old son is so conscious of the family’s financial constraints that he frequently tells his friends that he’s not bothered going out, because he doesn’t want to ask her for money he knows she doesn’t have. She is worried about his withdrawal from social activities with his friends, and the long-term impact that this will have on him. All of the parents I have spoken to feel guilty about their inability to provide for their children and the fact that they feel their kids miss out on things like outings, toys and treats.

‘The only way out is to rely on moneylenders’

Many of the parents said they often go without themselves to make sure kids have enough to eat. As one said: “I remember going three days without food, because I only had enough food and I wanted to make sure that the food lasted till I got paid. So I went without.”

The financial difficulties have backed some families into a corner, where the only way out is to rely on moneylenders to make up the difference that means being able to buy food or pay bills. Both legal and illegal money lenders – who charge exorbitant interest rates – are becoming more common in many of the areas in which Barnardos works. Weekly debt collections are now a norm. The vicious cycle of debt and poverty becomes more and more entrenched as families struggle to pay for necessities, borrow to get by and then face increasing financial hardship due to huge interest repayments.

Being under constant financial stress can lead to increased strain and conflict at home. Disagreements over how money is spent and how to manage the debt are common, as is disappointment that the children are missing out and concern that teenagers are at a greater risk of becoming involved in anti-social behaviour or socially isolated from their friends. Parents are trying to balance their children’s needs with limited resources.

So what does all of this mean for children? It means that there are many children for whom the recession means isolation, fear and stress. Children whose parents are living under a constant cloud of anxiety about money, and who as a result may not be as emotionally available to their kids as they would normally be. Children who are isolated from their friends and social networks because they can’t afford to do the things their friends do, or because they’re too conscious of the financial stress at home to ask for money.

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‘We know that these things are happening’

There are children who are genuinely going hungry because the family budget is so tight. There are children who are late or absent from school because there simply isn’t any money for school transport. We know that these things are happening, because we see them every day. It is sometimes hard to believe that we are living in a first world country in 2011. This recession may be costing taxpayers billions, but it is costing many children and parents much more; it is eating away at childhoods and eroding family life.

The long term implications for failing to protect children are huge, both for individuals and for our society as a whole. The failure to invest properly in educational supports means a greater risk of more children leaving school early, with all the things that implies: greater social welfare dependency, higher levels of unemployment, greater levels of ill health and greater risk of involvement in crime.

CSO statistics for 2010 show that Ireland is growing more unequal with greater disparity between incomes at the higher and lower ends of the scale. The recession is creating deep ravines between the haves and the have-nots in Irish society, and cementing intergenerational cycles of poverty and disadvantage.

Finola Halligan is a project leader for the children’s charity Barnardos.

About the author:

Finola Halligan

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