When asked to justify their role as a junior coalition partner, Labour Party ministers and TDs usually argue that they have protected “core” social welfare rates, which otherwise would have presumably been slashed by Fine Gael. It can’t be denied that Fine Gael possess almost Jack the Ripper levels of depraved enthusiasm for cutting up vulnerable people. But how much have the Labour Party really protected “core” rates? Joan Burton has held the “social protection” portfolio since the current government took office. Since then there have been four budgets, with a net reduction to the social protection budget of almost ¤900m. Of all the budgets, only one saw an expansion of welfare spending: Budget 2015 saw a €198m increase in welfare funding, still less than the €226m cut of the previous year. Overall, there has been a net reduction of spending on social welfare of 4.5% since Burton took over.
Still, these cuts were just to the more superfluous components of the welfare budget, right? Well that all depends on what your definition of superfluous, and, for that matter, “core” is. Cuts have been made to child benefits (including back to school allowance), jobseeker’s allowance, one-parent family allowance, carer’s allowance, means-tested fuel allowance, and to pensions.
Cuts to child benefit for third, fourth, and subsequent children were made in Budget 2012. Further cuts to the benefit were made in Budget 2013 for first and second children. A small increase in child benefit was introduced in 2014. This increase did not reverse the total cuts, and there have still been substantial net reductions.
As a result of these austerity measures, a three-child household will receive over ¤500 less in child benefit in 2015 than it did in 2011, a reduction of almost 10%. A four child household will receive over €1,000 less, a reduction of 13.5%. In further cuts to child welfare spending, the back to school allowance was cut in the 2012 and 2013 budgets from €305 to €200 for children aged 12 and over, and from €200 to €100 for children under 12. The children’s charity Barnardos estimates the basic school costs for a first year secondary school student in 2014 to be ¤735. These costs consist of clothing, footwear, school books, classroom resources, and a voluntary contribution. Even if the voluntary contribution is removed, the cost is still ¤615, much higher than the €200 allowance.
Various cuts to unemployment benefits have also been implemented. In Budget 2013, the duration of jobseeker’s benefit was reduced from 12 to nine months for recipients who had paid made over 260 PRSI contributions, and from nine to months for recipients who made less than 260 contributions. In the following year’s budget, cuts were made to jobseeker’s allowance (a different payment to jobseeker’s benefit). People between the ages of 18 and 24 on jobseeker’s allowance had their payments cut from €144 per week to €100 per week, and payments for 25 year olds were reduced from from €188 to €144 per week.
Other cuts include a reduction in pension rates in Budget 2012 for recipients who had made less than 48 years of PRSI contributions, and a reduction of six weeks of the period of fuel allowance provision. Fuel allowance is a means-tested payment designed to help pay winter fuel costs which is “paid to people who are dependent on long-term social welfare and who are unable to provide for their own heating needs” (from www.citizensinformation.ie). According to the most recent CSO data on fuel deprivation, 12% of people were in households who had “gone without” heating at least one time in the previous 12 months, and 8% were in households who had been unable to afford heating at all at least one time in the previous 12 months.
What’s not documented in the statistics is the human story of deprivation, misery and humiliation.
So over the lifetime of this government, a Labour minister, and the current tánaiste and party leader, implemented three successive austerity budgets (and one budget with small spending increases) which made substantial cuts to child benefits, unemployment benefits, and to fuel allowance. Its difficult to see these as anything other than cuts to “core” welfare services. The results of minister Burton’s actions are not hard to imagine. More children will live in poverty and suffer deprivation experiences, especially those in one-parent households (where the at risk of poverty rate was 31.7% in 2013). More young and unemployed people will struggle to scrape by or be forced to leave the country, something that is especially problematic for smaller, rural communities. More older, sick, and poor people will shiver and freeze over the winter period.
What’s not documented in the statistics is the human story of deprivation, misery, and humiliation: what it feels like to go to school in the morning with an empty belly and shoes with holes in them, or what it feels like to not be able to buy your kids a treat at the end of the week, or what it feels like to sit at home, alone, every evening because you can’t afford to go for a drink or to the cinema. Of course, statistics can’t document these stories. The media can, but are so integrated into the contemporary capitalist ideology that they have effectively dehumanised the entire working class. Only the rich, and the powerful are seen as subjects worthy of sympathy or human interest. Hence, Joan Burton’s discomfort at having to sit in her car for two hours is portrayed as a Dostoyevskian ordeal worthy of serious Garda investigation, whereas the protesters are portrayed as a vicious, irrational mob. The repossession of homes is ignored unless the house happens to be a solicitor’s Killiney mansion, in which case some media commentary comes across like it was written by the most shameless sycophant in Louis XVI’s court.
Labour have drank deep from the neoliberal kool aid and are now beyond redemption.
A recent article in The Irish Independent’s “News” section drooled lasciviously over Blaise O’Donnell, the daughter of said solicitor: “Daughter Blaise, a name that could have featured in a Dorothy Parker novel as a gal with ‘potential’, dresses like she is part of Stella McCartney’s cool Notting Hill clique (though it could be Zara). Think lots of money spent on clothes that don’t look like it. The money is in the taste, the quality and the expensive, understated label. Every day, Blaise dresses in beautifully cut, tailored pieces that outline her curvy figure and give her “presence”. It is her legs that reveal the “real” Blaise: skinny jeans, leggings, black opaque tights, all scream 21st-century female who isn’t going to conform.”
The same kind of neoliberal ideology has been more and more nakedly espoused by high-ranking Labour party figures. Alan Kelly, the party’s deputy leader, has sounded more and more like a Tory cabinet minister from the 1980s. In comments made to the Irish Times last month, he claimed that “there are a certain amount of people who believe in not making a contribution to society but allow for taxpayers to fund this indulgence.” This joins Eamon Gilmore’s comments, in relation to dole cuts for under 25 year olds, that “the place for any young person is not permanently in front of a flat screen television” at the pinnacle of the slurry pit of neoliberal rubbish which Labour have been spewing out over the last few years.
This kind of rhetoric is clearly designed to suggest that the unemployed simply can’t be bothered looking for a job, as if a laziness epidemic rather than a massive recession exacerbated by savage austerity measures is responsible for the large-scale structural unemployment that we are seeing. Such complete and utter bullshit sophistry is massively disingenuous and also a despicable insult to the hundreds of thousands of people who are forced to choose between an ever diminishing dole and the JobBridge free labour scheme which has had the added effect of driving down wages and undermining working conditions.
And this leads on to another important point. Because while even on their own terms Labour’s pathetic claim to have protected “core” welfare rates is blatantly untrue, the very notion of “core” welfare rates is a dubious notion which has its roots firmly in the neoliberal doctrines which Labour have lapped up. What the social welfare system actually is is not state-funded charity but, in fact, a massive programme of social transfers. It’s a redistribution of money carried out with the aim that no-one fall into unacceptable standards of poverty. It is a programme which is particularly needed in Ireland where, according to Eurostat measures from 2013 (the latest available), almost half the country (49.8%) would be at risk of poverty before social transfers. Greece was the only EU country with a higher rate. This is a testament to the weakness of Irish capitalism, the pervasiveness of low-pay and precarious work, and the deep underlying inequality of the Irish class structure.
It is also a testament to the absolute necessity of the social welfare system as a whole. Labour, with all their rhetoric about protecting “core” rates, have undermined this system. In the context of falling real wages, high rates of unemployment, and increased taxation, Joan Burton has cut welfare provisions. Burton has even ruthlessly slashed the “core” rates that she vowed to protect. Labour have drank deep from the neoliberal kool aid and are now beyond redemption. Let’s hope that the victims of Burton’s “social protection” overcome their dehumanisation at the hands of political, economic, and media elites and push her and her treacherous party out of government as soon as possible.