Poverty in Ireland-Widows
. The non-contributory widows pension is £3 13s. 6d. per week. For each child there is a 12s. 6d. supplementary benefit.
. There are 5,000 widows under 44 and the vast majority of them would be responsible for rearing a family.
LIKE THE OLD, widows are a group predictably vulnerable to poverty. Like the old, there is governmental obligation to provide assistance. It is the fundamental attitude underlying this responsibility and the manner with which it is discharged, which explains why the most cursory glance at a pensions tariff will reveal the inadequate standard of living such assistance could sustain. The common philosophy underlying both old age and widows pe~sions provide a natural link therefore: in addition, the overlap between the categories of widow and pensioner also make an analysis of the two in conjunction fruitful. An examination of the widow's condition will include, at our discretion, reference to the plight of the old. Generally, however, this subject will be considered separately.
There are in the region of 129,000 widows in the Twenty-six counties. 40,000 are drawing contributory pensions, 19,000 non-contributory. The contributory pension is worth £3 l5s. a week, regardless of supplementary income. With children there is an additional 2s. 6d. basic per week, 15s. 6d. for each of the first two children and IOs. 6d. for each after that. The non-contributory pension is worth £3 13s. 6d. when there are no children and no supplementary income. For each child there is a 12s. 6d. supplementary benefit per week. When income from other sources reaches £208 15s. Od., all right to the pension is forfeited.
The pension itself diminishes in relation to the size of this other income until this point. A mother may, however, earn up to £39 a year for each child without pension reduction. Mrs. Jo Burke, Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Women, claims that there are 19,000 widows on non-contributory incomes. There are, she says, in addition some 60,000 who are excluded from both contributory and non-contributory pension schemes.
"Should the mother-through physical or mental breakdown-have to part with her children to an institution or foster parent, the State now accepts responsibility and pays £2 per week to the foster mother and £8 5s. Od. to the institution. "
Her anger at the derisory benefits has not produced excessively impressive results. The 60,000 women who have the misfortune to earn over the sum entitled to them, or who are on an oldage pension, still receive no benefit whatsoever as widows. The brutality of this system to old people and to mothers with young children is obvious. Because of its marginal political consequences however, this has not been electorally pursued with the vigour of more political1y profitable issues.
Young poor in majority
The 12,000 widows with dependent children form part of the vast pool of poverty that is untouched by politically motivated economic adjustments. As Professor Kaim Caudle has persistently pointed out, the great majority of the poor are the young. Poverty breeds destitution and poor parents have a higher birthrate than their more fortunate equivalents. The twenty-one years of political neutrality enjoyed by the young prevents the deprived group from ever achieving an effective representation of their case in electoral platforms. Consequently it is not a crusading issue that may usefully be enlisted to serve the political needs of any of the parties. When those who have endured such poverty have come of age, they either do so in England-where so many of our problems are faithfully exported -or in a position of reasonable independence, and most probably beyond the grip of extreme deprivation.
So it is then that young widows with children form a particularly salient example of hardship. If they are working, they probably receive no pension in return. Children's al10wances are unimpressive compared to the comparable grants made in European countries. Such allowances vary from IOs. a month for the first child to £1 IOs. Od. for the second, and £2 for each successive child. In Britain, which has half the . birth-rate of this country, the assistance is higher than here. In France, it is six and a half times as great. In Italy, which has a comparable level of prosperity and similar income per head of population, the assistance is almost as large as France's.Quite obviously Ireland ranks extremely miserably in terms of children's allowances. This hits the large families very badly: for widows do not form a large wealthabsorbing and parasitic section of the community: they form a ratio of 1.5:100 to the number of working men in this country. Quite obviously, for them and for their children, the problem exists because of a political indifference that allows the machinery of assistance to clank past them, not because there is a basic lack of funds.
Widows with young children
There are around 5,000 widows under 44, and the vast majority of them would be responsible for the rearing of children. The majority of these were widowed after their fortieth birthday, a considerable majority after their thirty-fifth. This would mean that the number of babies and infants left without fathers would be considerably less than the number of growing children, who in terms of clothing and food, are considerably more demanding of their mother. This suggests that there is a group of women whose eldest children are not yet earning and whose youngest are at an exceedingly costly age. Because Ireland has had until recently one of the highest marriage-ages in Europe for both men and women, there are a number of predictable features that bear particularly hard on the widow. The first is that up till now, Irish women have had a greater chance of being widowed early than women of any other country. The practice of late marriage and a social tradition of large families have combined to ensure a large number of widows with families to support. The widows who are left, then, are mostly likely to have had their children in a relative short period of time. The rapid increase in the death rate of males from 45-54 year age group only confirms the likelihood of widows with young children. There are some forty-five thousand widows between 45 and 65, and of those there are seven thousand with dependent children. It is probable that their eldest children will be in a position to bring some money into the household.
What is apparent here is that the lack of provision for widows forces elder children to leave school earlier. The injustice of this is patent, yet relative to the more desperate injustice of the grossly deprived widow with younger children, it is less startling. The wastage in human terms for both groups is of course obvious. For the first, there is the threat of poverty if not the fact of it always present. There is a deprivation for the children and mother. The children are undernourished and underprivileged and, furthermore, are established in surroundings that most probably will severely restrict their education. The high rate of anaemia amongst young widows is a further indication of the nutritional shortage they must tolerate. For the second group, for whom the primary struggle of widow is finished, there is normally sufficient but never plenty. And again, the educational disadvantages for a child from such a background are very considerable. Such circumstances involve in the region of thirty-six to forty thousand children, in addition, of course, to their mothers.
Aside from the official help such widows are entitled to, there is Home Assistance-help given in cash or kind entirely at the discretion of the official concerned-or charitable institutions, the last resort of so many of the poor. Home Assistance is a vestige of the Old Poor Law, the expressed purpose of which was to encourage work by the stringency of the conditions for relief. Not many widows (about 33 in a thousand) apply for Home Assistance. It is regarded as a last resort, and its explicit threat, that the money it distributes is to be repaid in times of more prosperous circumstances, is enough to be daunting to a widow possibly already bowed down witb. debts and bureaucracy. Many of the applicants anyway are turned down. The acute, if arbitrary and inconsistent standards used by officers to assess whether a person is justified in seeking assistance means that there are still considerable amounts of need still untouched by the distributive mechanics of welfare.
A maiority of widows have been widowed for between ten and twenty years-meaning, naturally enough, that the majority are over sixty-five. There are, for example, 15% more women over sixty-five overall than men. Each succeeding year past sixty-five produces a higher percentage of women, than men.
In Dublin there are some 24,000 widows, a number which is given considerable inflation by the high ratio of women over 75 to men (208%). Furthermore, there are some 10,000 . women who have immigrated to Ireland mostly from Britain, since the war. Large numbers of these would be on the more substantial British pension.
The remarkable thing about the tone of the letter was the satisfaction the woman felt at her handling of a poverty that had been inflicted on her.Her
frugality was almost equalled by the gusto with which she announced it. It does not take close analysis to understand that this woman was genuinely on the border line of poverty. No clothes, no shoes, no recreation, no cigarettes, no drink. It is really a very pathetic account of a grimly opposed and officially supported poverty. And the most depressing thing is that a person should have to submit to such degradation. The truth must be faced that if this woman was earning twice that amount of money today, she would be poverty-stricken. Something in the region of one hundred thousand women do, in fact, live in conditions dependent on a pension only marginally greater, in real terms, than the pension that woman was barely receiving two years ago.