Is living on the dole a nightmare or a holiday? Sean O’Grady looks at what being on social welfare in Ireland means today.
The 1st of February saw the publication of an article in the Irish Independent in which a Polish woman identified only as ‘Magda’ spoke of the easiness of living her life on social welfare. Originally having been written for a Polish newspaper, the English translation contained several quotes from Magda (later revealed as not being her real name). ‘What’s my life like? Wonderful. I can grow as a person, I can breathe. I get a welfare payment; €188 per week plus €59 for rent,’ and ‘Work for the minimum wage? It’s not worth it,’ and, most disparagingly, even compared living on welfare to a ‘Hawaiian massage’. Rightly so, the article, as well as the woman in question, drew harsh criticism from the media and the general public. Soon afterwards however, it was discovered that the original Polish article had been severely mistranslated and much of what Magda was quoted as saying had been taken out of context. As it turns out, she does not believe drawing the dole is a holiday she can exploit, and later stated she is currently seeking employment. Nevertheless, the article does raise inevitable questions about the current state of social welfare as it stands in Ireland today.
There often seems to be a general consensus among many Irish people that those on welfare were simply ‘lazy’ good for nothings who are taking tax payers’ money. However, when you factor in the mass unemployment that Ireland faces today, how true can this really be anymore? The most recent unemployment rate statistics, released last November, show that a massive 14.6 per cent of Irish citizens are currently jobless, and 100 people on average emigrate every day. While the stereotype of the perceived laziness of those in the dole queue may have carried a degree more weight during Celtic Tiger times, nowadays, even the most qualified of college graduates can find themselves on welfare.
Most unfortunately, at a time in which recipients are their most vulnerable, welfare budgets are slowly decreasing. In 2007, Ireland’s unemployment benefits for those who were jobless long term, in several different categories, was the third highest in the OECD. However, with the announcement of the new budget cuts in 2012, €475 million has been taken out of social welfare. While not the highest number that was expected, this is still a very significant change.
To put it in more individual terms, €8 will be cut from the dole and €10 for each child benefit. There is also talk of reducing the eligibility of those on Lone Parents Allowance. Although when put into those terms, the cuts in social welfare may not sound very significant, for those it affects directly, they feel the significance of it all too well. For many, that €8 will be the difference between having a dinner one evening and nothing the next, or going from a warm house to one which has no heating since they just cannot afford it.
This, however, presents only one side of social welfare. There is another side that people have a problem with. While many believe that people who are on welfare receive too much, as discussed, they generally do not. Still, there are rare cases were those who live on benefits earn more than those with paid jobs. Late 2011 saw the release of a story of a Bosnian family with four children living in Ireland who receive up to €90,000 per year in benefits. While having four children certainly makes the case for needing additional aid from the welfare office, to give that amount to people who do not make a living is ridiculous. Many couples who are both employed will not make that much in a year, and it is a wonder how things like this are let happen. The move for a decrease in the welfare budget seems to coincide with this view, that benefits should be given a cap so as not to let another case such as this Bosnian family happen again.
One of the key arguments espoused by those opposing purportedly ‘extravagant’ benefits to disadvantaged families is because it may lead to the creation of the so-called ‘welfare class’, a group of people who welfare opponents believe will be encouraged to become lazy and apathetic when it comes to seeking employment. After all, when being given a wage every week without having to do anything for it, why work?
But we must not forget all the good that social welfare can do. Lower income students can afford college, newly unemployed people can still support their families. It seems the best option would be to implicate a strict cap on the amount of benefits given; not only will people be able to get by in difficult times, they will also be that more determined to better their lives.