Providing adequate welfare supports for a life with dignity

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Our social welfare system plays an essential role in ensuring that everyone, at different stages in life and whether working or not, have an income which allows them to live with dignity and take full part in society. It reveals a lot about our shared values as a society and particularly how we protect those who are at a vulnerable stage of their lives and those who have specific medical and care needs. It also provides us with a safety net that ensures should a household fall on difficult times financially, for example through unemployment or illness, there are payments and supports available that can help and assist in our time of need.

While Ireland compares reasonably well to other countries, the levels of welfare support people receive is not based on the cost of living and what is adequate to lift people out of poverty. We currently have a situation where many who are dependent on social welfare cannot afford a decent standard of living and live in poverty. If we are to have a standard whereby those on social welfare can escape poverty, then we need to benchmark social welfare payments against a level which is adequate and takes account of the cost of living.

Therefore, we welcomed recent comments by the Minister of Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty at the Pre-Budget Forum this past July that she supports using the Minimum Essential Standard of Living (MESL) as a basis for benchmarking social welfare payments. It follows a commitment in the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Act 2018 to consult with stakeholders on examining ways in which social welfare rates are increased with the aim of ensuring adequacy for all recipients. Setting such a benchmark would mean that changes in welfare payments would no longer be the gift of Ministers at budget time, but instead based on achieving an amount which is agreed as adequate to enable people to live with dignity.

A critical issue to be resolved however, is the decision regarding what measure should be used as the benchmark for setting social welfare supports. The issue of adequacy must be kept at the fore by the Minister, if not, people in receipt of social welfare will continue to be unable to meet their most basic needs.

The Minimum Essential Standard of Living has been developed in Ireland for more than 20 years by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. Through a rigorous process, based upon annually updating the cost of over 2,000 essential goods and services, it calculates the income levels needed for a broad range of different family types to afford a decent standard of living. This is a basic standard, which has been agreed by the wider public, that no-one should be expected to live below, and meets physical, psychological, and social needs. The use of the Minimum Essential Standard of Living is already established in Irish policy making and is used by the Insolvency Service of Ireland as the basis for calculating a household’s Reasonable Living Expenses. This is the income the household can retain so they can have a reasonable standard of living while sorting out their debt problems.    

The forensic research involved in calculating, and annually updating, the Minimum Essential Standard of Living allows for a detailed understanding of the changes in the cost of living and the impact of different policy changes on services and supports. 

The 2019 update of the Minimum Essential Standard of Living published in May shows that over the past six years the number of family types achieving adequacy has improved since the dark days of the crash, however 132 of the 214 of the family types on social welfare still had an inadequate income in 2019. The report outlines the range of policy changes that have brought about improvements for many families and makes proposals for the changes that are needed if progress is to continue.

The research clearly demonstrates the link between the cost of goods and services and the amount of money people need to have if they are to have the minimum standard of living. The more someone has to pay for directly, the more money they need to have at hand. Therefore, in Ireland, where successive Governments have chosen to keep taxes relatively low by international standards and invest less in public services, people require money in order to afford a decent standard of living. Investment in and reducing the cost of public services such as housing, childcare, and education will immediately reduce the cost of living for most people, whatever the source of their income.

The detailed work that goes into establishing the Minimum Essential Standard of Living means that it recommends itself as the ideal basis for benchmarking social welfare supports. The European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) Ireland is among a number of organisations working to ensure we have a progressive society for everyone, which will support Minister Doherty in taking this forward.

Paul Ginnell is the Director of the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) Ireland.

A version of this blog post was featured in an opinion piece by Paul Ginnell in the Irish Examiner July 2019.

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