A Critical Examination of Poverty in Ireland


One of the areas of concern in human rights is that of sharply increasing income inequality, not just in Ireland, but also in the neighbouring UK. In 1997, the median income of the richest 10 percent in UK rose by 60 percent, whereas the median income of the poorest 10 percent rose only by 11 percent. Similar concerns are seen in the Irish context also. The EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC), found that 14.1% of the Irish population was at risk of poverty in 2009, while and 5.5 % of the total population was living in consistent poverty and 14 percent are at a risk of consistent poverty. It is also a matter of concern that there are vulnerable groups of people who are living in poverty or at a risk of poverty. 8.7 percent children live in consistent poverty and 18.6 percent are at a risk of consistent poverty. 21 percent of the ill and disabled people are also at a risk of poverty. Due to rising unemployment, there are 25 percent of the unemployed who are at a risk of living in consistent poverty. Among single parent families, 17 percent families are living in consistent poverty and 35 percent are at a risk of consistent poverty. These numbers indicate a presence of significant percentage of people who are living in poverty or are at a risk to live in poverty.

Poverty trap, which is one of the possible outcomes of consistent and structural poverty, is a major source of concern in human rights discourse, as those who are caught in a poverty trap, face generational poverty and are involved in a vicious cycle of poverty, from which it is difficult for them to break out of. The vicious cycle of poverty trap is a matter of concern because it creates perpetual conditions that impact health, housing, nutrition and standard of living for people. For those living in poverty, there are a number of concerns that are related to their experiences of poverty, which are also now considered to be a part of human rights discourse on poverty. Some of these concerns are discussed in this report.


Key areas of concern regarding poverty and human rights in Ireland

Food poverty is a matter of concern in the area of human rights in Ireland. ‘Food poverty’ refers to the inability of the consumers to consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food in ways that are socially acceptable. The difference in food and nutrition intake contributes to health inequalities. In Ireland, the recent SILC Survey for Ireland substantiates this link between poverty and health inequalities in Ireland, where is shows that increase in consistent poverty rates is linked to decrease in health status.

In the industrialised nations like Ireland, there is a tendency to leave the market to decide the cost of food and there is little or no effort to regulate the cost of food in relation to wages. This presents a problem for low income households. The focus for the government is on the sufficiency of nutritional knowledge, capacity to budget, shop and cook and the actual ability of people to buy food that meets the nutritional parameters is left to the individual households and the markets. Food policy is driven by individual choice model, and the role of the state is to regulate food supply and the retail sectors. On the other hand, the international human rights law has noted the right to food as an important human right. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), provides the right to adequate standard of living, which also includes the right to food security. However, the Irish state has resisted efforts to give full legal effect to the economic, social and cultural rights provided in the Covenant, and also refused to revise National Anti-Poverty Strategy to be based on a human rights framework. Instead, the Irish government introduced the ten-year National Anti-Poverty Strategy (NAPS) in 1997, which was replaced by the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2007-2016. This is the principal method for achieving specific targets for the reduction of health inequalities, however, food poverty does not find mention in this plan.

In an earlier period of time, the Catholic Church played an important role in social service provision, which also included food provision; however, in recent times, the Catholic social service provision has declined. There are reasons for this, which need not be gone into here but it may be noted that since the decline in Catholic Church provisions, the issue of food security has become more a matter of social justice and socio-economic critique. At the same time, the economic crisis has led to the widening of income inequalities, which also has an impact on food security and food poverty. In Ireland, there is a significant number of families that can be characterised as the emerging ‘new poor’; these are the people with insecure employment and low wages, migrants with uncertain work, and families with uncertain welfare entitlements. Ireland also has a significant number of people who are characterised as those within longstanding poverty in households of lone parents, unemployed and pension-less older people, people with disabilities, unemployed people and the homeless. In Ireland, food poverty is seen as a central dimension to the experiences that people have with poverty, and the poor experience lack of food as one of the manifestations of their poverty. Food poverty has specific impacts on women, as research indicates that women in poor households are expected to go without food so that their children and their husbands can eat, and women do actually go without food in such poor households. Therefore poverty impacts women more as they often find themselves giving up their nutritional needs for that of their children and other members of the household. Nevertheless, research in Ireland also shows that children who live in poor households are subject to food poverty, which has possible impacts on their health in childhood as well as in adulthood.

Despite the concerns surrounding increasing levels of poverty and its impact on food security in Ireland, the social welfare provisions have been found to be inadequate to help low-income households in Ireland to purchase a healthy diet. Research in Ireland shows that the social welfare and minimum wage have proved to be inadequate to allow low income households to eat a healthy and nutritious diet. The cost of healthy eating is high for low-income households where 58% of the weekly Social Welfare Allowance is needed to feed a family of (2 adults and 2 children). Where expenditures for families depending on their size can range between 22% and 49% of welfare income, it is easy to see why there is a food poverty situation because a family will have to prioritise food, shelter and other expenses of the family, where food may become the last priority for the family. Recent research corroborates this as it finds that 39 percent of households in Ireland and 50 percent of lone-parent households experienced food deprivation in 2009.

The Irish Human Rights Commission has statutory powers that can be used towards promoting and protecting the right to food in Ireland. However, so far rights-based focus has not been able to be met in context of food poverty in the country, which is one of the areas of demand by some of the scholars and writers who argue that rights-based focus is necessary for ensuring that appropriate policy can be created on the issue of food poverty.

Another area of concern in Ireland and poverty discourse is that of housing. Ireland has shown a decrease in social housing, with public housing stock in 2012 accounting for 7.9 per cent of all tenures, down from 12.7 per cent in 1981 and 18.4 per cent in 1961. Nevertheless Ireland does show stability of the local authority or social housing estates in many areas, where such social housing is well managed and functioning areas; on the other hand, some of the social housing estates in Ireland have emerged as some of the most deprived urban areas in Ireland. Dublin in particular has some of the most deprived social housing estates in the country, with there being deep levels of deprivation and disadvantage in the estates. This has been a factor in the area since the 1980s, and social housing in Dublin area has seen some deterioration since the 1980s. There was some improvement in the estates through state action prompted by the deteriorating condition of the housing estates in Dublin. One of the steps taken by the government in this regard was to establish the State Centre for Housing Research and other steps included measures to promote tenant involvement and better estate management. These steps were taken to increase the democratisation of the management if the housing estates in Dublin. However, despite these measures the social housing estates have gone through processes of ghettoization. This has also led to other social problems in the housing estates including substandard housing conditions, high unemployment, drug addiction, gang-related crime, and low education participation rates. Therefore, lack of good social housing has had spillover effects on the poorer sections of the society in major cities like Dublin. One of the reasons for the problems faced by those who live in social housing is the lack of participation in the policymaking. Despite efforts made by tenant organisations, and charitable bodies to involve local authority tenants in policy making, there has been a lack of progress in this direction. One reason for this may be the lack of recognition for tenant organisations in Ireland. There is no cross-city organisation in Dublin for these issues despite there being some mobilisation of tenants by individual tenant and community organisations against specific social issues like drug dealing gangs. There are a number of locally based community development projects that have been developed by these organisations, including youth and education services.

Lack of adequate social housing and management of estates has an impact on the health of the tenants as well as their social and economic perspectives. In Dublin, research indicates that some of the problems faced by tenants of social housing estates, are overcrowding, dampness, mould, sewage penetration into the flats, and accessibility problems (due to lack of lifts in multi storey buildings designed particularly for older people). There are high levels of socio-economic deprivation in these estates, high unemployment rates, and extremely low levels of tertiaty elevel education participation. There are also high levels of poverty, which may be linked to higher level of serious antisocial behaviour as well as criminal drug activity. The 2008 financial crisis too has had an impact on the people living in these housing estates as this financial crisis affected the viability of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) that were created in the early 2000s to improve the conditions of social housing estates.

The utility of the human rights based approach to address social housing sector issues has been brought to the fore since the collapse of the PPPs in 2008, wherein social housing tenants have turned to human rights based approach to seek redressal of their issues and concerns. This approach, adopted by Dublin social housing estate tenants, was based on the similar approach adopted by the Participation and the Practice of Rights Project (PPRP) in Northern Ireland, where the approach was found to be useful in improving local authority housing estates in Belfast. Therefore, the adoption of a human rights based approach for resolving local or social housing issues and problems is not a new concept in Ireland, and may hold valuable lessons for improving the conditions of the housing estates in Ireland.

International human rights, which form the basis for the human rights based approach, recognise the right to housing as one of the important human rights of people. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recognises the obligation of the state to secure the realization of housing rights, within the framework of an adequate standard of living for all people. Similarly, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, recognises the right in Article 11. Therefore, as per the rights framework created in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, Cultural Rights, there is an obligation on states to secure for all individuals the right to housing and adequate standard of living. As these rights of the individuals are to be secured through the states’ obligation, there is a principle of accountability that is attached to the states as well, who are responsible for ensuring that this right is protected for all individuals. Therefore, the human rights based approach is based firmly on the duty of the states under the human rights regime as provided by the international and regional treaties on human rights. As part of the human rights based approach, individuals are entitled to assistance for the securing of their human rights and states are to focus on the structural causes and their manifestations. There is also a focus on identifying rights, processes, and outcomes as well as on empowering individuals to better access their rights. In context of housing rights, this would mean that the Irish government will need to identify the areas of concern for the social housing estates, establish processes that are meant to resolve or address these conditions and also empower the tenants to resolve some of these issues and problems. The establishment of social housing tenant bodies and organisations are already a step in that direction, but the government will have to do more to empower the tenant organisations of Ireland.

That the tenants in social housing estate face health hazards as well as hygiene issues, has been highlighted in a recent research, which used tenants’ experiences to inform the issue of the problems faced by those living in social housing. One of the most serious issues faced by the tenants was the problem with sewage invasions through household fixtures, smells, and grey and black waste water. The tenants reported delays in responses by the Dublin City Council in responding to this problem. One tenant surveyed during the research noted:

“The bath – it (sewage) gurgles, it comes up a couple of inches. I have to put the plug in every night and I have a big heavy candle I put over it. If the kids are in the bath, well as soon as we hear that gurgle, I have to drag them out of the bath because it will come up in on top of them and you don’t know what’s coming up.”

This response of the tenant in the survey shows the health and hygiene that tenants in the social housing live with. Waste water can be very harmful for health, although the Dublin City Council has denied the harmful effects of waste water. Surveys and research based on the hygiene conditions of the social housing estates in Dublin have revealed that there are multiple causes of concern with respect to the dampness and fungal contamination found in 72 per cent of flats in one such estate. Further research into the wall conditions in these houses found that there was a level of fungal contamination not seen in any other residential housing in Dublin, with colonies of Aspergillus fumigatus, Mucor, Rhizopus, and Penicillium in the walls of the flats. These fungal contaminations can lead to pulmonary (lung) diseases in humans, and possible contraction of asthma and bronchitis. Of particular concern in these social housing estates is that there are significant health effects reported by tenants, especially in the case of children, with many cases of repeated serious chest infections, pneumonia, bronchitis and E.coli infections. Sewerage overflows in the play area is also noted in many research surveys in social housing estates.

Therefore, a concern with regard to poverty and its impact on human rights does lead to concerns around health of those who live in poverty. The experience of poverty in Dublin, as explained above includes severe implications related to health and standard of living. Two of the issues discussed so far relate to food poverty and housing related problems, both of which are a part of the experience of poverty in Ireland. Both food poverty and inadequate or inappropriate housing conditions are related to impacts on health and well being. While there is a definite link between poverty and health, there is also an issue of accessibility to health care for poor people. Health inequities are thus linked to poverty. A recent report by the Irish Medical Organisation brings out this link in the context of Ireland. The report mentions that an individual’s health and wellbeing is impacted by experiences of poverty, inequality, employment and income, housing conditions, and social exclusion. The report also mentions that for people belonging to the lower socio-economic groups, there are relatively higher mortality rates, higher levels of ill health and lesser access to healthcare resources. Tellingly, the report finds that standardised mortality rates (per 100,000 population) indicate that unskilled workers have significantly higher rates at 790 as compared to professionals at 456, while those living in the most deprived areas have higher rates at 804 compared to those who live in the least deprived areas at 608. As some of the discussion above revolved around local housing estates and living conditions in these estates, it is interesting to note that mortality rates are higher among those residing in social housing at 757 compared to those in owner occupied accommodation at 489. These figures indicate the level of impact of living conditions on the health of those living in poverty. At the same time, the access to health care may be compromised for those who live in poor and deprived areas. Although Ireland does have a healthcare system that entitles all citizens to treatment in a public hospital subject to a small co-payment; recent studies have shown that a significant number of people have avoided visiting their GP with a medical problem due to prohibitive costs. Therefore, for the poor people in Ireland, there still are some concerns regarding access to health care. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights specifically provides for the right to health of all people in Article 12. Therefore, there is a human rights discourse on this right, which would demand healthcare equity for those who are living in poverty.

Preliminary recommendations

The following recommendations are made out for improving the state of human rights of the poor people in Ireland:

In order to empower social housing tenants in Ireland, appropriate tenant organisations and associations may be formed that are allowed to participate in policy making on social housing. This will allow tenants to have an official forum for voicing their concerns at a place where their concerns can be taken into account before policy is formed.

Food poverty should be linked to the National Action Plans, which so far have been silent on the issue of food poverty. This will ensure that state action is taken for alleviating the experiences of the poor with regard to food and nutrition.

State can encourage public-private partnerships with church and charities for responding to food poverty. Church has played a major role in the past in this area, and in this time, both the Church as well as charities can be involved in the alleviation of food poverty in Ireland.

Health inequalities in Ireland need to be responded to through some social policy that considers the disadvantages of structural poverty and consistent poverty for the health of the people living in poverty. For this, regular statistics and reporting on the inequalities is the first step.

Children under the age of 18 years are under more danger of living in consistent poverty. This needs to be addressed. Family policies that are designed to respond to child poverty can be encouraged as a method for achieving goals on reduction of child poverty, which, as indicated by this report, has increased to a great extent in the recent period of time.

A human rights based approach should be used to design programs for responding to food poverty, social housing, and health care access. Such an approach would ensure that accountability and responsibility is put on the state to ensure these rights of the people. It will also empower people.

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There are three specific areas of concern in the experiences of poverty in Ireland, these being food poverty, lack of access to adequate and appropriate housing, and health inequalities and health care inequity.


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