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Column: Social welfare should not spark social warfare

TheJournal.ie’s new columnist Lisa McInerney argues that we need to continue giving a leg-up to those worst hit by the recession – even if it means carrying a few benefits scoundrels along the way.

Lisa McInerney

IN THE ’80s, the local authority bought a tract of land near the centre of my home town, and built an estate entirely given over to its housing scheme. The completed homes were basic three-bed terraced, with small front and back gardens and a separate shed. Nothing fancy. Council estates never are.

The vast majority of those awarded tenancy were young, local families; mums and dads with a couple of smallies, maybe a car, maybe a job between them. By the late ’90s, when those smallies were forging paths of their own, a good proportion of the families had bought homes, whether it was the council house they’d settled in, or a larger house in another part of the town. The stay-at-home mums had gone back to work as their children grew older. Some families had started and stabilised their own businesses.

They took the head start granted to them by the Council, and used it to better their situation. They had joined the town’s middle classes.

My own belief is that the concept of class in Ireland is much more pleasingly vague than, say, the UK’s. It’s still very much a new thing for us to have so many economic strata that the populace can file themselves into, and it’s healthy, I think, that this is still tied mainly to economics. Many of my friends were born to working-class parents, but their own children will be middle-class, with the educational and cultural opportunities that comes with it. Work hard in Ireland, and with enough cop-on, daring, and, let’s face it, luck, and you can rise right to the top. We have plenty of entrepreneurs who clawed their way up from less than distinguished beginnings.

I’m not suggesting that we didn’t have class division before the Celtic Tiger – with our long history of occupation and religious persecution, it would take prescription strength rose-tinted specs to think otherwise – but we’ve now got more options for self-classification than ever. We’ve even got layers of “middle-class” now, so that we can distinguish between doctor stock and new money, professional tradesmen and businessmen farmers. And one of the loudest echoing laments that’s come from this economic awareness is that the working classes, those traditionally at the dregs end of the money trail, don’t work anymore.

We’re a socialist state but, individually, we’re determined little capitalists

The term “working class” used to denote those whose daily grind enabled the wealth of a nation; now it’s synonymous with the squandering of other people’s taxes. We could say that this is just semantic misunderstanding, getting our proletariat mixed up with our lumpenproletariat (don’t worry, it could happen to anyone), but I wonder if it has more to do with that strange Irish guilt we seem predisposed to, and the feeling that it’s shameful to need a leg-up from the State. We have a reasonably socialist State in Ireland, with assistance for the unemployed, and largely free education and healthcare, and yet there’s a stigma attached to anyone actually benefitting from that.

We’re a socialist state but, individually, we’re determined little capitalists. With trust issues. And stress headaches.

I’ve noticed one consistently regurgitated declaration in debates about the validity of generous social welfare payments in post-crash Ireland. “We’ve created a welfare state in which it pays more to sit at home on the dole than it does to do an honest day’s work, and we need to slash benefits immediately to take the shine off the brass necks of the unemployed.”

I can understand this reaction, which I think is as tied in with our Irish mortification at needing assistance as it is legitimate anger at grifters avoiding hard graft. Those families I mentioned who took their council house as a stepping-stone were typical of that neighbourhood, but there were those who took the house as a kind of moat around their laziness. Generous benefits enable us to better ourselves, but they can also disable us very comfortably too. You know what happens to bad apples? Nothing. They rot happily in the orchard.

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No society can flourish with a starving underclass

And there’s nothing we can do about this. Short of employing a liaison officer for every struggling household in the country, we cannot effectively determine which recipient of social welfare really needs it, and which is just taking the proverbial. Who is genuinely trying to better their circumstances, and who is happy to vegetate. Who wants to contribute to society, and who thinks the State is a benevolent bunch of rich oul’ fellas justifiably ripe for embezzlement.

And even if we were able to distinguish the healthy horses turning down offers of work, from good eggs who genuinely need the State’s economic protection, what can we do, realistically? Stop their payments? Force them out of their subsidised homes and onto the street? No society can flourish with a starving underclass. No child born into poverty can realise their potential if they’re living in an old car, subsisting on their parents’ despair.

As frustrating as it is, Ireland needs to continue as a “welfare state”. We must try to give a leg-up to those worst hit by this recession, even if we risk coddling ne’er-do-wells alongside. The alternative might save us a few quid in the short-term. It might even frighten a few of our scoundrels straight. But in the long-term it will be a counterproductive nightmare, for all of us, whether we worked for it or not.

Lisa McInerney’s writing is also at www.lisamcinerney.com

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Lisa McInerney

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