Leave peo­ple on so­cial wel­fare alone:

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Jacky Jones

The new Depart­ment of So­cial Pro­tec­tion’s (DSP) anti-fraud cam­paign, “Wel­fare Cheats Cheat us all”, has pro­voked con­tro­versy and de­bate. Me­dia com­men­tary, most of it ill-in­formed, has ranged from “it’s a witch-hunt against the most vul­ner­a­ble”, and “us­ing a sledge­ham­mer to crack a nut” to “it’s time to deal with the spongers”.

The cam­paign cites a fig­ure of ¤506m for 2016 which in­cludes, ac­cord­ing to the DSP, com­bined “con­trol and anti-fraud sav­ings”. Us­ing this fig­ure is mis­lead­ing and gives the im­pres­sion that there is a huge amount of fraud when there is not. In fact, only ¤41m re­lates to “de­lib­er­ate, in­ten­tional fraud by peo­ple claim­ing ben­e­fits they are not en­ti­tled to”.

So­cial wel­fare re­cip­i­ents are stig­ma­tised enough with­out the DSP run­ning a cam­paign that will drive a wedge be­tween us (work­ers) and them (idlers). Even pen­sion­ers, most of them on a con­trib­u­tory pen­sion, mean­ing they have paid into the sys­tem, are of­ten por­trayed as a bur­den on younger, work­ing, peo­ple. The ¤41 mil­lion ac­tual fraud is just 0.2 per cent of the nearly ¤20 bil­lion DSP bud­get.

Of the ¤506 mil­lion, ¤46.7mil­lion was paid to claimants who pro­vided inac­cu­rate or in­com­plete in­for­ma­tion or failed to re­port a change in cir­cum­stances but did not de­lib­er­ately in­tend to de­fraud the DSP. Also in­cluded in the over­all fig­ure are “es­tate over­pay­ments” which arise when rel­a­tives for­get to can­cel pen­sions or other al­lowances fol­low­ing a death and ¤20m “es­tate over­pay­ments” were made in 2016. Most of this has al­ready been re­paid in full.

The DSP made ¤2.3m ad­min­is­tra­tive er­rors in 2016 when ben­e­fits were paid in­cor­rectly. Ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment, “some level of er­ror is ex­pected given the scale of the Depart­ment’s work in­volv­ing some 1.2 mil­lion pay­ments each week”. Out of the ¤506 mil­lion, ¤396 mil­lion was not fraud but money saved as a re­sult of “con­trol” mea­sures taken by the DSP in 2016. This can be in­ter­preted as mak­ing it as hard as pos­si­ble for claimants to ac­cess their en­ti­tle­ments.

The biggest prob­lem with the so­cial pro­tec­tion bud­get is that re­cip­i­ents of so­cial wel­fare are not paid enough. A re­port from the Vin­cen­tian Part­ner­ship for So­cial Jus­tice – Min­i­mum Es­sen­tial Stan­dard of Liv­ing 2016 – shows that so­cial wel­fare pro­vides an in­ad­e­quate in­come for most house­holds in re­ceipt of al­lowances and pen­sions.

Re­searchers from the Min­i­mum Es­sen­tial Bud­get Stan­dards Re­search Cen­tre cal­cu­lated the amount of weekly in­come re­quired (ex­clud­ing hous­ing, child­care, and the ef­fect of sec­ondary ben­e­fits, such as a med­i­cal card) to have a min­i­mum es­sen­tial stan­dard of liv­ing (MESL) for 12 types of house­holds. For ex­am­ple, two par­ents with one child need ¤431.24 if liv­ing in an ur­ban area and ¤520.81 if in a ru­ral area.

Two par­ents with two chil­dren, in­clud­ing one teenager, need ¤565.67 a week in an ur­ban area and ¤653.70 a week in a ru­ral area. Sin­gle adults of work­ing age need ¤242.37 in an ur­ban area and ¤291.60 in a ru­ral area. So­cial wel­fare rates do not pro­vide a MESL for any of these house­holds.

Pen­sioner cou­ples liv­ing in so­cial hous­ing, or with the mort­gage paid off, are the only peo­ple with an ad­e­quate in­come. Fam­i­lies with ado­les­cent chil­dren are worst off but peo­ple of work­ing age with­out de­pen­dent chil­dren also ex­pe­ri­ence in­come in­ad­e­quacy.

Al­though so­cial wel­fare rates in­creased slightly in 2017 most house­holds liv­ing on so­cial wel­fare still have an in­ad­e­quate in­come. Two par­ents with two chil­dren now get ¤380.60 a week (ex­clud­ing hous­ing) which is far short of the MESL bud­get needed of ¤483.29 if liv­ing in an ur­ban area or ¤573.32 a week if in a ru­ral area. So al­though fraud must be elim­i­nated as far as pos­si­ble, no­body on so­cial wel­fare is well off.

In­come is a huge de­ter­mi­nant of health, along with hous­ing, ed­u­ca­tion, and em­ploy­ment. In­come in­equal­ity is a grow­ing global prob­lem. Eight men now hold the same wealth as four bil­lion of the world’s poor­est peo­ple. Aos­dána pays 148 “full-time prac­tis­ing artists” a Cnuas of ¤17,180 whereas job­seeker are ex­pected to sur­vive on ¤10,036. Are artists worth more than un­em­ployed peo­ple? Sev­eral re­cent stud­ies have high­lighted the strong as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween low so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus and health.

Ac­cord­ing to a US study pub­lished in the Lancet last month, “With­out in­ter­ven­tions to de­cou­ple in­come and health, or to re­duce in­equal­i­ties in in­come, we might see the emer­gence of a 21st cen­tury health-poverty trap and the fur­ther widen­ing and hard­en­ing of so­cioe­co­nomic in­equal­i­ties in health.” This will hap­pen in Ire­land un­less some­thing rad­i­cal is done about it. What the coun­try needs is more fair­ness. In­creas­ing child ben­e­fit for teenagers would be a good start.

The biggest prob­lem with the so­cial pro­tec­tion bud­get is that re­cip­i­ents of so­cial wel­fare are not paid enough

Min­is­ter for So­cial Pro­tec­tion Leo Varad­kar launch­ing the con­tro­ver­sial Depart­ment of So­cial Pro­tec­tion’s anti-fraud cam­paign

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