Covid-19 has left over 125,000 people in Ireland jobless, the highest rate of unemployment we have seen in years. With the necessary close of businesses, there are people from all industries across the nation who have been made temporarily or permanently unemployed – losing complete access to an income.
“The Pandemic Unemployment Payment rendered people more able to pay their bills, their rent, and to afford basic necessities.”
The government’s response to this was the introduction of a Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP), a saving grace for thousands of people across Ireland. This partial restoration of wages rendered people more able to pay their bills, their rent, and to afford basic necessities. The payment started at €201 a week for all recipients. However, in March, PUP was increased to €350 for every recipient. This was an obvious acknowledgement from the government that €201 a week was simply not enough to live on.
It is puzzling then, that the government rolled back on this just a few months later. In June, a tiered system was introduced based on how much money a recipient earned before they were made unemployed. It was as if the government was admitting that €201 wasn’t enough to live on, but you did it before, so you’ll probably be fine this time. It is not the case that people who earn higher wages have more necessary expenses than those who earn less than €200 a week, and yet the government has made clear that they deem them more deserving of assistance at this time.
“There have been no changes in external factors that mean people have stopped needing the original €350 in order to survive.”
In September, the payment was split into three bands – €201, €250, and €300 – which are still based on previous earnings. In mid-October, the payment was further tiered to €350, €300, €250 and €203. However, very little has changed for recipients of the payment on an individual basis. There has been no other government assistance with bills or groceries. There have been no changes in external factors that mean people have stopped needing the original €350 in order to survive.
It must be acknowledged that the fact that any worker was ever making less than this living wage is a government failing in and of itself. People do not choose to earn less because they don’t like working. It is a symptom of a Dáil unwilling to raise the minimum wage or properly regulate the gig economy for fear of businesses getting angry at them. However, this government shows over and over again that they value businesses more than they do the people who elected them. This was made harshly clear on the day of the budget, where a provision of up to €5,000 per week for businesses that have closed was announced, with no restoration of the PUP. The government has a responsibility to provide for the people it has left behind, especially now, as the pandemic has made those people more vulnerable, with significantly less opportunity to pick up extra work.
The government’s concurrent mismanagement of the housing crisis is yet another thing which makes the tiered system even more morally untenable. Rents in Dublin land at an average of €500 a week – the fifth highest city for residential renting in Europe – and the government refuses to bring in a permanent rent freeze. They can not justify failing to restore a payment which will likely mostly be used to aid a problem they have the power to but no intention of solving. People who earn under €200 a week, must too live in places and pay rent.
“Eligibility was measured by the wages received in March, at the end of the academic term. It is incredibly common for students to take on a full time job over the summer in order to save for the next year.”
Many recipients of the payment have been students. Crucially, eligibility was measured by the wages received in March, at the end of the academic term. It is incredibly common for students to take on a full time job over the summer in order to save for the next year. These savings are crucial for many students attending higher level education due to the rising cost of living, particularly in Dublin; lack of access-directed higher education funding; and high rents in Dublin, Cork, and Galway— all problems the government has made no real attempt to solve. This necessary ability to save was hampered first by the pandemic, and second by the government insisting on a tiered system of entitlement to welfare.
It is true that there are people entitled to this payment who do not need it (a criticism often levelled at students in particular). Those people should not apply for it, or they should redistribute it to the people and organisations who do need it. However, there is no reasonable way for this to be means tested without some people in urgent need slipping through the cracks. There are students ineligible for the SUSI grant who rely on summer savings to pay for fees, students who balance three jobs over the year to pay for their rent and still came short of the €200 a week in March. It is not the government’s job to punish the most vulnerable for the actions of some wealthy recipients who will abuse this payment.
The Pandemic Unemployment Payment is a salve – not a solution – to the plethora of problems which have been exacerbated both by the pandemic and the Dáil’s response to it. But it is an important salve for many people in need, especially those who have been left behind by the government. Their consistent refusal to tackle the housing crisis, zero hour contracts, and underfunding for access based higher education leaves this government with nothing less than a colossal moral obligation to restore the payment.