Ireland's relentless assault on the vulnerable

While in Iceland the left-leaning Icelandic government chose to focus the impact of the adjustments necessitated by the crisis on the richest sectors of Icelandic society, in Ireland the poorest have been made to bear the brunt. By Vincent Browne.

At a conference in Dublin last week, an academic from Iceland, Thora Kristin Thorsdottir, showed a chart contrasting the impact of the crisis measures adopted by governments in Iceland and Ireland on real disposable earnings of couples by income deciles (that is the poorest tenth of earners, the next poorest tenth, through to the richest tenth).

It showed that the poorest tenth of earners in Iceland suffered a drop of 9%, whereas in Ireland the drop was 26% (the data for Ireland was for the period 2008-2009 and for Iceland 2008-2010).

For the second-poorest 10% of earners, the drop in Ireland was 14%, in Iceland, 9%. For the second-richest tenth in Iceland the drop was 17%, in Ireland it was just 2%. But, the most revealing figure of all, for the richest 10% in both countries, in Iceland the richest had a drop in earnings of 38%, in Ireland the top 10% showed an increase of 8%.

Quite simply, the left-leaning Icelandic government chose to focus the impact of the adjustments necessitated by the crisis on the richest sectors of Icelandic society. In Ireland, the right-leaning government did the opposite (it was a Fianna Fáil-Green government during the relevant period but its prescriptions have been followed by the right-leaning Fine Gael-Labour Government).

As in Iceland, there were and are clear choices for an Irish government in dealing with the crisis: whether to focus the impact on the adjustments on those best able to bear the pain, ie the richest sectors of society, or to focus the impact on those least able to bear the pain, ie the poorest.

Perhaps the cruellest measure introduced here has been the universal social charge. Initially, everyone being paid €4,004 and above had to pay the charge. Amid a flurry of self-congratulation, the current Government increased the threshold to €10,036, but with a vicious sting retained in the tail.

Anyone getting even a single euro over €10,036 has to pay the charge on their entire income. But not just that, whereas a levy of 2% applied on earnings up to €10,036, those between €10,036 and €16,016 were levied at 4% and everything above that attracted a levy of 7%.

In other words, people living on slightly over the minimum wage (€8.65 per hour) were catapulted into the highest levy bracket (€8.65 multiplied by 38 hours a week, multiplied by 48 weeks, equals €15,777.60).

Since the crisis broke in 2008, there have been reductions in child benefit; carer’s allowance; disability payment and blind pension; jobseeker’s benefit; jobseeker’s allowance for those aged 18-21 years; supplementary allowance for those aged 22-24; one-parent family payment; and earnings disregard (by €16.50 to a weekly amount of €130).

There have also been reductions in heating fuel subsidies and in supports to Travellers’ education, plus an increase of €2 per week contribution from those with a rent subsidy.

Low-paid workers in the public service, ie those earning €30,000 and less, have had a 5% reduction in salary, and the minimum public service pension age has been raised from 65 to 66.

It has been a relentless assault on the disadvantaged, accompanied by protestations by the last government and this Government that everything possible is being done to protect the vulnerable.

Meanwhile, the agencies that campaigned for rights and entitlements of vulnerable people have been undermined or abolished: The Equality Authority suffered a huge budget cut and now may disappear; the Women’s Health Council is closed; the Crisis Pregnancy Agency is closed; the Human Rights Commission has had huge budget cuts and is now being merged with the Equality Authority; the Combat Poverty Agency has been abolished; the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism is closed down; the National Women’s Council of Ireland has had massive budget cuts; the Rape Crisis Network Ireland has seen its core funding ended; and Safe Ireland, which has been providing frontline domestic violence services for women including refuges, has had its core funding ended.

Meanwhile, in the vivid phrase of Tom Healy of the Nevin Institute: no senior bondholder left behind. Billions have been poured out to non-guaranteed bondholders in the banks, including the defunct Anglo Irish Bank. Hospital consultants’ vast pay has been left untouched. The legal profession has been left unreformed in spite of troika pressure (odd that powerful vested interest sectors can avoid the reach of the troika, while low-paid workers are faced with restructuring – ie the weakening of employment entitlements), and millionaires pay only 40% of their gross income in tax, PRSI and the universal social charge.

And now we learn that the relentless assault on vulnerable people is to persist with the coming budget.

The news (as reported in the Irish Times last week) that payments to young people aged 16 to 18 with disability may be cut by about €110 per week is indicative of the prevailing mindset that “there is no alternative” to immiserating the already miserable while “incentivising” the “wealth creators” to return us asap to the joys of the Celtic Tiger yesteryears.

Last week’s conference was held by the National Women’s Council of Ireland. I have used here material presented to the conference by Ursula Barry and Pauline Conroy.

Thorsdottir - The Polar Opposite- Iceland, The Recession and Gender Equality