The nineteenth century American novelist, James Lane Allen, wrote that “adversity does not build character, it reveals it”. And this aphorism applies very clearly to the 22-year-old Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, who is not only a world-class footballer but is also a remarkable campaigner for human rights. His campaign to provide school meals over the school holidays in England has resulted in scores of local councils in England pledging to feed disadvantaged children as they joined a wave of public support. His efforts are in the wider context of increasing poverty in the UK because of the various levels of lockdown in the UK owing to Covid-19.
This fabulous effort got me thinking about poverty in Ireland and in my own community and how Covid-19 is adding to the pressure on children and families. But it also got me thinking about my own relationship with poverty. But what is poverty?
The definition which is generally used in Irish and international research about poverty was provided in the 1970s by the British sociologist Peter Townsend: “Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or are at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies to which they belong. Their resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities.”
Dorothy Watson, a Research Professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), in a 2017 article subtitled “The ESRI Approach to Poverty Measurement”, draws out three salient points in relation to this definition of poverty: (1) there being a lack of resources (2) an idea of what is ‘normal’ in society and (3) being excluded from patterns of life in the community.
My father grew up in the 1930s in what might be termed “reduced circumstances” owing to a significant lack of resources. Interestingly, he said that he did not notice it too much because everybody around them in the community was in the same boat and they all made do with what they had or did not have. Looking at the definition, I realise that I have lived a small part of my adult life in relative poverty, but was fortunate to have had the support of friends and family to tide me over during some difficult times – but not everybody has access to these valuable social capital resources at time of temporary poverty. But the mark of this sense of being excluded still matters to me, hence why Marcus Rashford’s efforts strike a chord with me.
The European Anti-Poverty Network in Ireland describes (https://www.eapn.ie/) people or households to be at risk of poverty when “their income is less than a particular threshold. In the EU, the threshold has been set at 60% of the median income (mid-point in the scale of the highest to the lowest of all incomes in Ireland).” Using this definition of the ‘poverty line’, Social Justice Ireland (https://www.socialjustice.ie/) estimates that, in 2019, more than 689,000 people (or one sixth of the population) are living in poverty in Ireland, of which over 200,000 are children. They say that nearly one quarter of children in Ireland under 16 years of age lived below the poverty line – a remarkable statistic in this economically prosperous country.
Another measure of poverty in Ireland is the “consistent poverty rate” measured by the Central Statistics Office in their Survey of Income and Living Conditions (SILC). They say that the consistent poverty rate in Ireland fell from 7% in 2005 to 4.2% by 2008 before rising to 9% in 2013. Over the following five years, the rate fell to 5.6% in 2018. Critically, they say that young people were more likely to be in consistent poverty than older people. In 2018, the consistent poverty rate was 7.7% for people under the age of 18, over four times higher than the rate of 1.7% for people aged 65 and over.
The message from these figures is that a lot of people, and more than we might imagine, live below the poverty line, and children are impacted disproportionately. And there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the economic impact associated with Covid-19 will inevitably increase poverty rates in Ireland.
The question is what we can do as the challenge of poverty increases? Well, organisations such as the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and others are there to help assist those in need – but their resources have been materially depleted owing to Covid so donations are even more important now. And, for those who are willing and able, volunteering with these organisations in your community will always be appreciated. These efforts will make a difference – but I sincerely hope that we will also find people of influence in Ireland of the same calibre and character as Marcus Rashford who will be willing to stand up for those who do not have.