Poverty and Class in Northern Ireland


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In 2003 the Bare Necessities report by independent think-tank Democratic Dialogue revealed that nearly 30% of Northern Ireland’s households were poor. According to the report, in 2002-03 half a million people in Northern Ireland were living in poor households of whom148,900 were children (37.4 per cent of all children).According to the report, “based on the 2002/2003 figure, Northern Ireland is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world”(p43). The authors concluded that “taking the eradication of child poverty seriously would involve a substantial redistribution of resources and whether those who would lose out would support such a fundamental shift in current economic arrangements must be at the heart of future political debate”.

Have things improved in the past six years?

According to figures released in February this year by the Stormont administration, the number of children living in ‘relative poverty’ has fallen by 39,000 since 1998/99, with the most recent estimate in 2006/07 standing at 96,000.While this constitutes an improvement, 22% of all children in the province remain in poverty compared to other better-off children here. In 2008 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child highlighted Northern Ireland as a worst case example because twice as many children and young people here are living in ‘persistent poverty’ as in the rest of the United Kingdom. On top of this, 52,600 (12%) of children in Northern Ireland are living in even worse conditions, described as “absolute poverty”.  Behind the figures lie lives of worry, shame, ill-health and endless battling against the barriers that poverty throws up.

Government Strategies

So, what is the government doing? Have local politicians made good on their policy commitment to poverty eradication and taken on those who might oppose “a fundamental shift in current economic arrangements”. Unfortunately, despite a policy commitment to the eradication of poverty on the part of the political parties in the Stormont executive, we have yet to see anything like a substantial redistribution of resources. Poverty is no closer to being abolished and inequality remains as stubbornly a part of life as it was in 2003.

In 1998 then Secretary of State Mo Mowlam launched a New Targeting Social Need (TSN) policy for Northern Ireland. As a result of this focus, a TSN Unit, which was eventually renamed the Central Anti-Poverty Unit, was set up. The Unit aimed to drive policy and co-ordinate actions across departments, so that an anti-poverty focus would inform all government decisions. In 2006 the Unit published Lifetime Opportunities – Government’s anti-poverty and social inclusion strategy for Northern Ireland. The document highlights those groups in society most at risk from poverty and calls for a targeted approach to the provision of services which can help these groups out of poverty. The strategy wasn’t exactly passed into law but, in the words of junior Minister, Jeffrey Donladson, “the Executive agreed on 20 November 2008 to formally adopt what we describe as the broad architecture and principles of the Lifetime Opportunities strategy as the basis of our strategy to tackle poverty and social inclusion and patterns of deprivation based on social need.” According to Donaldson,

The aim is to reduce the risk of poverty and social exclusion by increasing economic opportunities, increasing the capacity of individuals to avail of these, removing barriers to participation and targeting efforts to address the needs of the most vulnerable. …

In the Programme for Government, we have committed to work towards the elimination of child poverty in Northern Ireland by 2020; to reduce child poverty by 50% by 2010; and to work towards the elimination of severe child poverty by 2012….

Our priority is action, and we want to develop the strategic direction as we get the groups together – including the ministerial subcommittees and the forum – when adopting the architecture of the Lifetime Opportunities strategy. We will also have to cost those key actions to ensure that they meet the constraints that are placed on the financial commitments of each of the Departments.

Of course, the stated desire to substantially reduce poverty stands in contradiction to those constraints on financial commitments, and this will become even more the case as a whirlwind of Thatcherite cut-backs are forced on the Stormont Executive by the UK Treasury of Brown and Cameron. Of course, there are significant elements within the Stormont Coalition who would relish the opportunity of cutting back on social provision. For example, Peter Robinson recently told the Institute of Bankers that “our large public sector which has cushioned us may also hinder our recovery.” Referring to the cut backs in the public sector which he believes are necessary, Robinson states that, “Politicians often underestimate the public’s willingness to do the right thing when it clear what the right thing is and what its benefits are and what the true cost of the alternatives really is.” What is this “public” that might be so willing “to do the right thing”? Is it the people in the top quintile of income, expenditure? Or is it the people who just about get by on a few pounds a week? Working people need to find their political voice, otherwise just as they bore the brunt of the recession they will bear the brunt of the recovery. There is no sense in the approach of the Stormont Coalition of the radical redistributive agenda which the authors of Bare Necessities believed to be necessary.

Poverty in Northern Ireland

Poverty affects some groups in society more than others and is more prevalent in some areas than in others. Pensioners and single mothers are particularly vulnerable groups. For example, according to Eileen Evason of Age Concern research, 24% of households where the head of the household is over pensionable age are living in poverty. Three in ten disabled pensioners are in poverty and the figure rises to over 40% for single female pensioners.  On top of this, in 2006-7 the average income of pensioners declined by £17 per week.

In relation to regional spread, figures from the government’s Family Resources Survey indicate that 41% of children  in the North West in 2004-7 were in poverty with  just over a third of children in North Belfast, West Belfast and South Tyrone in poverty. (Londonderry Sentinel, July 1st, 2009).

Moreover, poverty seems to be geographically concentrated in the sense that people in poverty tend to live near each other. Half of all children who live in households in receipt of Income Support are concentrated in just 16% of local government wards in Northern Ireland.

What the poverty statistics reveal above all is the extent to which Northern Ireland is a class society, even if this is not yet reflected at the polling booths. A few figures on income and expenditure give a flavour of the class divide in Northern Ireland.

  • The top 25% of households receive 52% of the overall weekly income while the bottom 25% of households get only 8% of income.
  • The Public Health Alliance for the Island of Ireland estimates that the top 20% of households in the North spend £753 per week while lowest 20% of households spend £169 per week.
  • According to the Home Energy Conservation Agency, 226,000 households were facing fuel poverty in 2006. These figures probably much higher in 2009. How many people will be wrapping up in freezing houses this winter?
  • The top 20% of households spend £89 per week on transport while the bottom 20% spend just under £22
  • The top-spending households spend £74 a week on food while the bottom quintile spends only £26 per week. Households in the lowest income bracket spend the least amount on food but this small sum constitutes the highest proportion of the weekly income compared to better off households.

Because the figures were gathered prior to the onset of the current crisis, many experts believe that the real situation is even worse than that painted by the statistics and is likely to deteriorate as the recession continues to bite.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the class chasm…

Haughey                  Quinn                   Kevin Lagan                Michael Lagan

Some seriously rich people have taken a tumble as a result of the credit crisis. Fermanagh businessman Sean Quinn and family lost an estimated £1 billion pounds during the past year. Not to worry. According to the Sunday Times Rich they are still worth £2,295m making Sean the 13th richest man in the UK. Second wealthiest man in Northern Ireland is Newry businessman Lord Ballyedmond (Edward Haughey) who’s worth an estimated £440m while brothers Kevin and Michael Lagan (Construction) were in third place worth an estimated £250m.

Sean Quinn is almost certainly counted among a tiny group of ultra-rich individuals known as High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs), who have at least US$1 million in investable assets (i.e. spending money).  According to a report by Merill Lynch Wealth Management, there are now 8.6 million HNWIs in the world. Nearly twenty per cent of their worth has been wiped out by the current crisis: they now own only $32.8 trillion between them. Within this group of very rich people there is an even richer group of 78,000 people known as Ultra High Net Worth Individuals who have at least $30 million to spend. In the past year HNWIs have been cutting back on their “passion investments” in yachts, fine art and “charitable giving” and the Ultras have been spending less on private jets and football teams. The Bordeaux wine-market, which had originally suffered a dip, has recently revived to more normal levels, as “affordable luxuries” have become favoured.  It’s well for some – a tiny few.

In a recent book radical geographer, Richard Peet commented on these differences in income from a global perspective:

According to the World Bank, 971 million people living in the ‘high income’ countries and making up 15.5 per cent of the world’s people now [2004] receive $27.7 trillion in income, or 80.4 per cent of the global income, while 2,310 million people in the ‘low income’ countries, making up 36.8 per cent of the world’s people, receive $1.04 trillion , or 3.0 per cent of global income … Of the 80 per cent of income going to rich countries, 50 per cent typically goes to the highest-income 20 per cent of the people, while the lowest-income 20 per cent in the rich countries receive 5-9 per cent…  (Geography of Power, 2007:7-8)

The Politics Of Envy?

There is compelling (and statistically significant) empirical evidence in The Spirit Level , a new book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, which shows that among rich countries more unequal societies suffer more from a whole raft of social ills – including levels of crime, educational attainment, obesity and teenage pregnancy etc. etc.- than more equal societies. These findings are also replicated in comparisons of the less unequal and more unequal states of the USA.

Moreover, the evidence shows that although the poorest in an unequal society tend to suffer most in the areas, those further up the social scale suffer more than a similar social cohort in a more equal society. In other words the negative effects of living in an unequal society can be seen among the middle classes as well as among poorer people. (There is also a comprehensive companion website at Equality Trust).

Targeting social needs may be of some value but if politicians are to have more than a rhetorical interest in eradicating poverty, they must remove it at its source. As Richard Peet puts it,

The poor are poverty stricken because the rich are money laden. Poverty cannot be ended by neoliberal policies that deliberately increase inequality by ‘favouring the investor’. Poverty can be ended only by policies that transform socio-economic structures. This means income redistribution in a social democratic sense – free services for poor people paid for by very high taxes on over-wealthy people. But it more fundamentally means redistributing productive resources towards the poor … through land reform, government-supported cooperatives, worker-owned factories, community enterprises, resources dedicated to supporting local livelihood rather than making distant profit. Social transformation means states committed to the poor. (Geography of Power, 182-3)

This is a true in Northern Ireland as anywhere else in the divided world.

Justin O’Hagan is a member of the Ard Comhairle  and Northern Regional Executive of the Workers’ Party. A shorter version of this article will appear in the next issue of Look Left,  the Worker’s Party newspaper.

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5 Responses

  1. eoin macneill

    October 17, 2009 6:29 pm

    A serious indictment on the current political and economic situation in Northern Ireland. The outcome one might argue of years of divisive British involvement in Irish affairs and decades of sectarian politics at the expense of working class people living here. I also think it is of particular interest to identify the exclusively wealthy minority named in this article who are the main benefactors of the same political and economic system voted for by the Northern Irish working class electorate each and every year. While the national question should never be ignored in my view, the electorate need to transcend sectarian politics and focus on addressing the issue of poverty and inequality so endemic in our society. Well done to the author in highlighting these issues.