By Michael Dwyer.
Poverty is not a problem. Not of itself. Poverty is not caused by a lack of money. Poverty cannot be mitigated by giving people more money. It will be a wasted opportunity if now we simply cut entitlements and don’t step back and change the whole way we think about poverty and welfare provision.
I am poor. I have no money. Gis a job. When I was a child my family was poor. Father was a small farmer, very small. We milked all of five cows. I was ten before he had a permanent job and a real cash income. I never felt poor. I never lacked materially or spiritually for anything. My parents both believed that education was a good in itself, not simply a means to economic advantage. I knew certainly by the age of seven that I would go to university. As would my sister. And my brother if he wanted to. I was told, as was my sister, that I should study as long as I wished. Masters, H dip, Ph.D., the money would be found. For eight years without a break they had a child in University.
Though I have no money now I know I have made money in the past and that I will make money again in the future. I may never be rich, but I will be able to buy the odd bottle of champagne again and get Mr Johnson of Tullow to make me another suit. If I had children my situation would be a lot more uncomfortable, but the lack of money in this moment would not scar them or prevent them from being successful.
True poverty is poverty of aspiration. It is a poverty of experience, ambition and expression. This kind of poverty has become endemic in some communities and is passed from mother to son, father to daughter like a dominant gene. There is no question that once the state support existed to give people the bare minimum to feed a family. There was a time when poverty was principally an economic issue. The problem now is much worse. Somehow along the line the chain of experience which teaches us how to be human has been broken.
There are certain basic attributes of human behaviour which we had always assumed innate. Well it turns out that many are not. Empathy for example is a learned behaviour. The habit of baby talk is universal, and it transpires the practice of matching exaggerated facial expressions with exaggerated tones of voice is our way of teaching baby to recognise emotions in others. This is a vital step in learning empathy. This is learned in the first three years of life. Or not learned at all. Babies who are not spoken to, sung to, played with do not learn empathy. This is precisely what happens to many of the babies born to single parent families in areas of high deprivation. It is hard to overstate how dangerous it is for society to launch a generation of young people onto the streets that lack empathy. We are colluding in the creation of sociopaths.
A friend of mine a couple of years ago was working as a social support in a small estate in south inner city Dublin. There were twenty one teen mothers and of those nineteen had no significant relationship with the father of the child. I asked him if he believed that giving these households another two hundred Euro a week would improve the outcomes for their children. He laughed the laugh of the lost and said “NO”. The only thing that would improve would be the quality of mam’s drug habit. We could pour money into these communities, we could increase their income levels far beyond the point defined as living in poverty, but for the bulk of those children now caught up in the cycle of intergeneration poverty nothing would change.
Do you know how much it costs to put a man in prison for a year ? Around eighty thousand Euros. Juveniles in special care facilities can cost even more, over a hundred grand. Are you happy to keep paying that and more, as the numbers incarcerated increase, then we should just keep doing what we are doing. Around seventy per cent of men in Irish prisons are less than moderately literate. So, the education system is failing too many children and stymieing their chances. Not really, the system is not set up to deal with under socialised children. Children who have no learned empathy or social interactional skills are not able to learn or behave at the same level as their contemporaries. Immediately they are singled out as problem children and they will fail all the way through the system. We need to abandon the assumption that all children begin formal education at the same age or we are setting up these children to fail. They may just need another years pre school to prepare themselves socially for school. It would not be hard to construct a simple school starting test to see if a child is ready or needs some more help. Helping now is much much cheaper and much much more effective than later intervention.
Intervention before birth is best. Intervention, education and support between nought and three is vastly more successful and cost effective than any other option. Locally based initiatives using respected women and men from the community with experience and given some practical training can reach out to at risk families in their own homes. We must try to bring young mothers AND fathers along with the programme not force them. The great majority will desire better for their children and will cooperate when they understand this is for the good of the baby.
At a basic level we must stop using the welfare and tax system to achieve undesirable outcomes. Do we want children to have fathers or not? If we do then we must abolish a welfare code that incentivises the absence of dad from the baby’s home. It should make more fiscal sense to be married than unmarried. The system must not put a a citizen in a position where it is more rational not to work. The system must be much more flexible than now, where the recipient can keep working a bit more and more, as it became available, without ever risking losing income.
All over the western world free markets and capitalism have made us richer and richer with each generation. With that growth in wealth there has grown a concern for those who have done least well. We are facing the results of about four generations of state welfare based on the same approach and same assumptions of eighty years ago. This system works fine for those who are only passing through poverty, which is the great majority. But it has failed those who are now mired in welfarism, where the highest real objective is to make poverty more comfortable.
This surrender of the future of even a few Irish children to a life of brutish limited horizons, alcohol and drug abuse and and devoid of the numinous is wicked and unacceptable. I don’t pretend to want every house in Ireland to have a Ferrari in the garage, but our ambition should be a country where every home has a book of poetry.