Ireland’s homeless figures make for sobering reading. In the lifetime of two successive governments the number of people sleeping rough and living in temporary or emergency accommodation has risen sharply, and these numbers continue to grow. The rise in unemployment, coupled with a decrease in earnings and working conditions for those in employment, has set the figure of those living on the edge soaring. Welfare cuts and a cap on young people’s unemployment benefits have put more and more people at real risk of losing their homes, and daily more families are presenting themselves as homeless to their local authorities. The lack of socially provided, affordable housing and the exploitative prices being charged by landlords in private rental arrangements have made it impossible for many ordinary people to make ends meet.
Homelessness and housing vulnerability on this scale is no failing on the part of the unemployed, the underemployed, or the underpaid. This is a failure of policy. According to statistics released by the OECD Better Life Index the average earnings of Ireland actually increased during the latter part of the recession. This may come as something of a surprise to middle and lower income earners, as for the vast majority in these brackets income took a serious dip. What this means is that higher earners saw significant increases in their take home pay.
These same statistics also show that the net per capita wealth in the country is estimated at $31,580 – approximately €29,000. Evidently some are far wealthier than this, and others far poorer. Six years ago Ireland was the third most unequal country in terms of wealth distribution in the EU, behind only Spain and Portugal. By 2015 the wealthiest twenty percent of the country controlled 73% of the wealth, leaving 0.2% to the lowest earning twenty percent.
Such inequality has serious consequences for the lives and well-being of real people, the most catastrophic of course being suicide. As early as 2011 it was recognised that the rate of suicide here in Ireland was perfectly mirroring the rise in the rate of unemployment. When we add to this the number of sick and elderly people who have died unnecessarily as a result of social welfare and healthcare cuts it becomes clear that austerity and the ongoing wealth transfer from the poor to the rich is costing lives. Human beings deserve better than this, and we can build a better Ireland.
Clearly, even in the depths of economic recession, there is enough wealth in Ireland to look after everyone, and not merely the well-off. Ensuring that everyone has a decent quality of housing, education, access to opportunity, healthcare and so forth is not a “hand out.” People born into this state had no choice in the matter, and neither does anyone have the option of opting out of the state. No one can choose not to pay their taxes and declare themselves as a one person or family republic. Human beings within the state are treated as state assets. That when these assets have been forced into economic hardship they are abandoned by the state as disposable refuse is unacceptable. We must begin the task of rethinking Ireland, and this must be done in a way that puts people first.