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Poverty 'There is a dominant narrative that seeks to blame people for their circumstances'

But the reality is choices are dramatically different for people living in poverty compared to those with access to resources, writes Dr Tricia Keilthy.

POVERTY IS A very real and pervasive issue that affects the lives of tens of thousands of people in Ireland today. The latest CSO figures show that over 780,000 people are living below the poverty line. Particularly stark is that there are now 70,000 more children growing up in consistent poverty when compared to 2008.

This is unacceptable in a rich country like Ireland. But poverty tends to be an issue that is pushed down the political agenda and attempts to work towards change can be undermined by unhelpful media narratives, stereotypes and misunderstandings about the issues.

There is a dominant narrative that seeks to blame people for their circumstances; the result of a history of poor choices. But the reality is choices are dramatically different for people living in poverty compared to those with access to resources.

Resources, be they financial, social, cultural or educational, give people the freedom to make real choices about their future. Poverty rarely allows you to plan for the future, as your thoughts are consumed by how you will make your budget stretch to the end of the week, or how you will put food on the table today.

What do we mean when we talk about poverty?

Relative poverty, which compares how people are faring relative to the society they live in, is the internationally recognised standard measure of poverty.

In Ireland, relative poverty is defined as having an income less than 60% of median income in the state or living on less than €237 per week. One problem with using this measure is that, during the recession when many people’s income decreased, rates of income poverty stayed the same, but that didn’t mean that those of the lowest incomes didn’t suffer or were actually any better off.


That’s why the second measure – deprivation – is also important as it indicates the number of basic essentials people are forced to go without such as heating, suitable clothing and nutritious food. During the crisis, deprivation increased by 75% for those on the lowest incomes but the rate has only fallen by 6% since 2013.

While these measures give us some sense of the scale of the issue, they don’t show how poverty is an exhausting and endless struggle to make ends meet. It is the stress of having to choose between whether to pay the rent, the electricity bill, or pay for food.

It is the daily worry about whether the car will break down or someone will get sick, and then deciding which necessity will have to be sacrificed to pay for an unexpected bill.

These measures also do not tell anything about the impact. Research is clear that poverty is one of the greatest threats to children’s well-being. Data from the nationally representative Growing up in Ireland study shows that experiences of poverty increases a child’s risk of poor educational outcomes, physical health, and social and emotional well-being.

We need to change the narrative and build support for change

There is a need to find better ways of articulating and communicating that people’s opportunities and choices are created or constrained by systemic and environmental factors. Your postcode, childhood experiences of (dis)advantage and the educational opportunities available to you all determine your later life outcomes.

By focusing the narrative on individuals and not on the structures and polices that create and perpetuate poverty, we create unnecessary divisions that are hurtful for all groups and communities in society.

Social and economic policies should be based on the belief that everyone should have equal rights and access to healthcare, social services, education and culture. This approach would provide the basis to address the structural barriers to quality employment such as low educational attainment, the lack of affordable housing and childcare, discrimination in the labour market and the issues of low paid and precarious work.

An adequate social protection floor that protects the unemployed and retired from undue hardship, that values caring work and that supports those who cannot access employment due to an illness or disability ensures people fulfils the basic human right of living with dignity.

Economic case

As well as the moral argument for addressing poverty, there is also the strong economic case. By investing in citizens through good quality public services that provide a pathway out of poverty, everyone benefits.

The OECD agrees that economic models which promote equality not only reduce inequalities in income and wealth, they also promote full employment, improve living standards for all, and contributes to economic growth.

Finally, and importantly, we need to include the voice of people who are experiencing poverty and marginalisation in decision making. Listening to real-life situations changes our attitudes and understanding of poverty.

This will make for a more inclusive and diverse national discourse on the type of Irish society we all want to live in.

Dr Tricia Keilthy is Head of Social Justice at St Vincent de Paul. SVP launch its Pre-Budget Submission ‘Paving a Pathway out of Poverty’ today.

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Dr Tricia Keilthy
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