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'The stress makes me sick': New report highlights stark financial burden faced by Irish families

St Vincent de Paul says parents are struggling to eat, while prioritising their children’s education.

File photo.
File photo.
Image: Shutterstock/Natalia Lebedinskaia

A NEW LANDMARK study has painted a stark picture of Irish parents going without food in order to put their children’s needs first. 

The research conducted on behalf of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) highlights the level of financial burden being faced by families across Ireland. It also gives an insight into the level of guilt felt by parents about the situation they and their children are in. 

Researchers from the Vincentian Partnership for Social justice (VPSJ) spoke with 30 families, on the condition of anonymity, in order to gain a picture of what life is like for households who do not have an adequate income to cover their costs.  

The households were a mixture of one parent and two parent families, from urban and rural areas, both employed and in receipt of social welfare.  Most were living in private rented accommodation, with some living in social housing or paying a mortgage.

Going without 

The interviewees said they face daily struggles in ensuring that bills are paid and their children have food on the table. They gave examples of having to go to extreme lengths to budget and raised concerns about children feeling different from their peers. 

The children look for money for school trips, and we often have to say no to even five euro, we just don’t have it, even though we budget carefully. We have to say “sorry we can’t”… they are very good kids and we hate that they feel different.

Families detailed keeping children at home from school when their class was going on a tour or an outing, because the household couldn’t afford the fees involved.

Researchers say one of the key findings of their study was the importance of education in all of these households, with parents struggling to meet the associated costs of school books, uniforms and so-called voluntary contributions. 

I find life very hard, not being able to pay all my bills, always putting some on the long finger. The stress makes me sick. I’m always worrying knowing that my kids have to go without.

The high cost of housing was the single most cited driver of income inadequacy, followed closely by unemployment and family break-up.

SVP is calling for urgent action on housing in order to lift the burden off struggling parents. The organisation’s Caroline Fahy said:”We need to see more investment in housing, childcare, health and transport so that families are supported to find a way out of poverty and income inadequacy”.

Burden of debt

The report depicts the psychological impact of living without access to adequate income is having on parents. With one interviewee saying they felt like they are in a “deep hole”. 

I can’t get control, we can’t make plans, it’s like being in a deep hole, no matter what we do we can’t get out of it, we climb up and fall back in.

Parents spoke at length to researchers saying they had become very good at budgeting, “because they had to”, that they can’t afford not to make their income stretch as far as possible.

As part of the study researchers used what’s known as the Minimum Essential Standard of Living (MESL) in order to assess how much of a financial struggle families were facing. The measure is based on a study carried out every year since 2004, by VPSJ to assess basic living costs in Ireland. 

Dr. Bernadette MacMahon is the Director of VPSJ and speaking about their findings she highlighted the level of debt these families often fall into, as being a key burden. 

Having debt and arrears, facing extra costs due to illness or disability and living on a low income for a long period of time added to the difficulties of some families in making ends meet.

MacMahon’s comments mirror those given to researchers as part of the study:

I only wish I had not been so stupid, every day the debt hangs around my neck. I’m always worrying about how I’m going to get money and how am I going to pay back the loans and look after the girls? When will I be free?

SVP is calling on the government to take head of their findings and has asked that social welfare rates and the National Minimum Wage be benchmarked against the minimum cost of living “in recognition of the real costs being faced by families”.

The charity says all of the families that they spoke to had one appeal for their communities, not to judge them for the financial situation their households are in. 

(Update) In a statement to TheJournal.ie the Department of Social Protection said tackling poverty particularly child poverty remains a fundamental aspiration of the government and Irish society”.

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