Poverty in Northern Ireland
Senior social scientists and policy-makers meet in Belfast today (Friday, February 4) to explore how far the government is succeeding in abolishing child poverty, reducing social exclusion, and improving equal opportunities in Northern Ireland.
Brought together by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the UK’s biggest funder of social research, the seminar will examine the distribution of income, benefits and tax in Northern Ireland.
The starting point for the discussion will be a new ESRC report which summarises the latest research findings into poverty in Northern Ireland and what policies might be effective in reducing it.
Professors Paddy Hillyard and Eithne McLaughlin of The Queen’s University of Belfast will deliver opening papers at the seminar and draw on their ground-breaking report, Bare necessities - poverty and social exclusion in Northern Ireland, and The bottom line: Severe child poverty in Northern Ireland shortly to be published by Save the Children in Northern Ireland.
Bare Necessities documented the extent of poverty that Northern Ireland families experience. It showed that a higher proportion of families are in poverty in Northern Ireland than in either Britain or the Republic of Ireland; and specifically found 185,000 households containing over 500,000 people were living below the poverty line. Poverty was measured by two yardsticks: low income and deprivation - having to go without things, which the public regard as necessities of life: such as enough money to pay heating, electricity and telephone bills on time and new, not second hand clothes.
The Bottom Line also showed that children and families in Northern Ireland are more deprived than their counterparts in Britain. In the words of Professor Hillyard, who described Northern Ireland as one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, "the challenge for Northern Ireland and local politicians is how to reduce these deep fractures of inequality and create a more just society."
Professor McLaughlin commented that lone parents in Northern Ireland face particular difficulties because of low levels of job opportunities for women generally combined with low pay and lack of early years provisions.
Among the themes to be explored are:
• The need for a comprehensive joined-up Northern Ireland anti-poverty strategy with clear definitions, policies, targets and outcome measures, which would also examine the inequality impact of existing and future policies
• A re-examination of Section 75 of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act, which places a duty on public authorities to promote equality across nine domains gender, religious belief, age, race, disability, sexual orientation, political opinion, marital status, and families -- but crucially does not include class or poor/rich dimensions.
• Children and childcare: why has there not been the same commitment to children’s early years in Northern Ireland as in England and Wales? Sure Start has been under-resourced. There is poor childcare provision and women’s employment rates are low. Women’s groups which supply so much of the support at community level do not receive mainstream funding and have to apply for funds annually. Many are going to the wall for lack of funds.
• Area based or individual/group distribution of resources. Does focusing on the former generate problems because poverty within the Catholic community is more concentrated than that within the Protestant community?
• How feasible is a welfare work-to policy in a region where pay is 20% less than the national average, most jobs are poorly paid and of short duration, and support services are in short supply.
• Is the current benefit system adequate to meet the problems of entrenched poverty or is something different needed? Can benefits be made more flexible so that lone parents and long-term unemployed can carry part of their benefits with them into their often short-term jobs as the new pilot programmes for disabled people in England are successfully exploring and as has been the practice in the Republic of Ireland for long-term unemployed people for many years.
Becky Gammon | alfa