What is “Relative Poverty”?

(The Nationalist, 12 January 2001)


Absolute poverty means not having enough food, clothing, work, housing or money to sustain life.

Relative poverty is something else. Some people define it as 50%, others 60%, of average income. In the Irish Republic, there are more people living in relative income poverty now than ten years ago. It means being one of the more than 40% of Irish people who are either low-paid or on a social welfare benefit. What’s it like?

It means waiting: waiting in social welfare or post offices for benefits, or for a place on a hospital or on a local authority housing waiting list. ‘Just wait.’

There are nearly 30,000 people with their name on hospital waiting lists. It means being more likely to be ill and having lower life expectancy than other people. If you are a Traveller your life expectancy is fifty-three while for other people it is twenty years more. It means you cannot afford private health care.

It may mean that you are in one of the forty to fifty thousand households with their names on the growing local authority housing waiting lists. It may mean being homeless; they are growing in number.

It may mean having children who are among the one in five Irish seventeen-year-olds who are not in full-time education, or that your children will rarely be able to go on a school outing or take part in other school activities unless food is skimped in order to provide the money. It means your children have greater needs with fewer resources to meet them. You are a lot less likely to go on to third level education.

It may mean being clueless how to plan the use of money so that it goes on the immediate demand without thinking of priorities or the longer term.

It means experiencing the disapproval of those who think that your situation is your own fault, that if you would just smarten yourself up and get your act together you would be alright. It may mean coming to believe what they think about you, that maybe you are lazy, irresponsible or stupid. It means being tired and gradually worn down by constant struggle in almost everything. It means living with the hope that maybe someday things will come right and the cycle of discouragement will turn around and begin to swing up. Perhaps your hope rests with a Lotto win, so you spend your money there.

Relative poverty means that you are a second-class citizen. It diminishes your dignity and self-respect.