The Mood Song of the Poverty Deniers

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Shane Coleman doesn’t believe. CORI recently published its exhaustive Socio-Economic Review 2008 - a 240 page report detailing all aspects of poverty in Ireland. Contained therein was the startling fact that there are over 720,000 poor people living amongst us. Not only that, there are now more poor people today than there were at the start of the Celtic Tiger boom. But Shane Coleman just doesn’t believe and, in this, he is not alone.

How poor to do the poor have to be before they are considered ‘poor’? Very poor, dog-poor, a tenement-dweller-in-a-Sean-O’Casey-play poor, subsisting on fried bread and margarine. If you are not at least this poor, you are not poor, there is no poverty, the system is fine and all we need to do – if anything – is tinker with a few ‘targeted’ programmes: the yin of economic growth and the yang of Fianna Fail rule is restored and universally applicable.

Welcome to the world of poverty deniers. They sing a lot.

CORI has calculated that there are slightly over 720,000 people below the ‘relative income poverty line’, using the EU-wide measurement. The relative income poverty line is determined as 60% of a society’s median income. Median income is the half-way point in income distribution whereby 50% earn below and 50% earn above.

This relative income poverty line is qualified. It doesn’t claim that everyone earning below that line is ‘in poverty’. It states that these people are ‘at risk of poverty’. We have to keep this distinction clear as the terms can be used inter-changeably.

mtaft_poverty_1_2.JPGCORI has charted the relative poverty lines that are commonly used. While the 60% threshold is the standard measurement, we also have the 50% threshold (what could be called those ‘really at risk of poverty’) and the 70% threshold – or those ‘nearly at risk of poverty’.

The percentage of those living below all the thresholds has, as can be seen, increased over the twelve year period. It is these measurements that led CORI to claim that there are more people living in poverty than before the start of the recent economic boom.

Now, none of this should be terribly contentious. The terms are technically defined by EU standards, and the CSO does the measuring. But Mr. Coleman is not impressed:

‘. . . it is hard to see how these figures can be credible . . it is hard to believe that as much as 17% of the population lives below the poverty line. . . It’s not just the risk that many casual observers will switch off because the figures don’t tally with what they have witnessed with their own eyes over the past decade. To argue that over 700,000 people are living in poverty runs the risk of creating a perception that the level of poverty is of such a magnitude that it is virtually impossible to even attempt to address . .’

Of course, Mr. Coleman is not disputing the increasing numbers of people living ‘at risk’ of poverty, but rather whether the relative thresholds can really be called ‘poverty’. For there are, broadly speaking, two schools in this debate. Those who claim that poverty is relative while there are those who claim poverty is absolute (this typology is, itself, at risk of gross generalisation but let’s run with it for the moment).

The absolute, or ‘consistent poverty’, measure brings together two measurements – the relative income poverty line and certain EU-defined ‘deprivation’ indicators (e.g. food consumption, clothing, heating, debt, etc.). This is the measurement Mr. Coleman feels more comfortable with. What can this tell us about the number of people living in ‘absolute’ poverty?

The CSO indicates that in 2006, 6.9% of the population live in consistent poverty – nearly 300,000. However, this measurement is also subject to some statistical management. For those who maintain that the true measure of poverty is those who experience deprivation, relative income lines become less relevant. So, while the figure for those experiencing deprivation (and living below the relative 60% line) is 6.9%., that for those experiencing deprivation but below the 70% threshold rises to 9.3%. It may seem only a small difference, but it amounts to over 100,000 people. So which is the true, as opposed, to the formal, absolute poverty line? Have a debate.

Unfortunately, we don’t have ‘deprivation indicator’ data going back to 1994. This could have been helpful to test Mr. Coleman’s contention that poverty cannot possibly be higher now than at the beginning of the boom. Is there another way around this statistic deficit? We can only estimate.

mtaft_poverty_1_3.JPGBetween 2003 and 2006, the proportion of those below the relative poverty line suffering from deprivation fell from 44.7% to 40.6%. If we track this trend all the way back to 1994 we can assess the growth or decline of those living in deprived conditions. In this estimate, the numbers in deprivation fell … but only slightly.

Now, this figure can be contested on a number of grounds. First, the 1994 figure may be an under-estimate because the rate of those in deprivation was much higher and fell at a faster annual rate than between 2003-2006. Second, it could be argued that in 1994 deprivation was more severe (that is, people suffered more categories of deprivation) than in 2006. That’s not a wholly convincing argument because we’re into an unverifiable and desultory ‘deprived people were more deprived then than deprived people are deprived now’. Third, there are more people today; the population has increased by 700,000 since 1994. Yes, that happens in societies, but the argument is whether there are more deprived people now than in 1994.

So Mr. Coleman, on the level of ‘consistent’ poverty, is the winner – but it is a Pyrrhic victory, for the numbers are slight. Even if the 1994 estimate is on the low side, the decline is still not qualitative.

mtaft_poverty_1_4.JPGBut what is interestin is that people who claim that poverty is an ‘absolute’ rather than a ‘relative’ measurement invariably use relative arguments. For instance, conditions below the relative poverty line today are still better than conditions below the relative poverty line 10 years ago. Well, yes. And relative poverty conditions in the 1990s were materially better than in the 1970s, and the 1950s, backwards ad infinitum. Not only is the poverty under discussion ‘relative’ to some other poverty in some other time, the measurement used is arbitrary, using the time or place that best suits the argument.

Now, here’s a comparison. Ireland’s relative poverty levels are substantially higher than our peer group in Europe. All things being equal – assuming that the proportion at risk of poverty suffering actual deprivation is the same – we have a lot more poverty than other modern societies. Surely this is a valid measurement, despite it being relative.

But there is something detached in these percentages and labels. Let’s look at the concrete – that is, the Euros and cents – reality.

mtaft_poverty_1_5.JPGWhat is absolutely clear is that it is difficult to live on an income below €219 per week – regardless of whether one suffers deprivation. But there’s more. As we saw above, over 27% live below the ‘near at-risk’ poverty line, or the 70% threshold – well over 1,000,000 people. What’s the difference in income terms between this sizeable proportion of the population and the relative poverty line? €5 a day.

Take away that €5 and those at-risk of poverty would include more that one in four in the population. If Kirsty McColl is right – that from the penthouse to the basement it’s not that far – then a very large number of people live right next door to a room where the risk of poverty is real.

Ultimately, though, poverty-denial is neither a statistical nor a subjective phenomenon, but rather a political one. Mr. Coleman refers to policies and resources being ‘targeted in the best possible way.’ And that’s the real issue.

To accept that poverty or poor-ness or lack of income ( whatever one feels comfortable calling it) is widespread would demand a comprehensive strategic response. We would need to question the logic of our low-tax, low-spend, low-serviced economy; we would need to examine our instruments of redistribution, if any; we would need to compare our economic base with those pertaining in other countries to see why it is that we cannot generate the skills and the wealth appropriate for a modern society; we would have to ask what the welfare state is for, and why ours is so anaemic. In other words, we would have to formulate an essential political response.

However, to deny the extent of poverty means we don’t have to engage in such a fundamental revaluation. We need only ‘target’ resources on that small group through a series of ‘tactical’ measures. Poverty is removed from the political to the managerial realm. And that makes some people very comfortable. It coincides with, and reinforces, ‘what they witnessed with their own eyes’. When you look out the bay window on to the small street you live on and see the world as an extension of your sitting room, it means little has to change. You got your sounds on the box but you won’t put on Paul Simon, not when he sings:

We work our jobs / Collect our pay / We think we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re slip-sliding away.

It would ruin the mood.

The photograph above is called Blue Doors and was taken by Donncha O’Caoimh of