People forced to choose between heating or eating, warns charity

There is a “real risk of deepening poverty” and worsening inequality unless government measures to deal with the rising cost of living are adequate, experts warn.

Society of St. Vincent de Paul sees people in homes ‘literally without electricity’, forced to choose between heating and eating, or between going to hospital appointments and sending children to school .

Tricia Keilthy, the company’s social policy manager, said people using prepayment meters who previously got weekly electricity for €20-30 were now only getting three days’ electricity.

“Our volunteers visit people in houses with literally no electricity, who are sitting in the cold, with candles, unfortunately quite regularly. It’s very, very, very hard right now.

“In rural areas where people have to rely on a car, we are seeing choices being made about what essential journey they will take. The priorities are getting the kids to school, getting to work, getting to the shops, so you see people delaying hospital appointments.

“Hard Choices”

“Parents routinely put their own needs behind those of their children, so put off going to the doctor until they can afford it. Single parents really struggle. Disabled people who need more heat are in trouble.

“There is a real danger that we will have a deepening of poverty if this package of supports that the government is putting in place is insufficient,” Ms Keilthy said.

Joana de Silva, chief nutritionist at Safefood and an expert on food poverty, said there was “always a concern” when families’ incomes were under pressure they were “making tough choices”. Food was “often the only item in a household’s budget that could be cut back on. We know that poorer households eat less well and have higher levels of excess weight, with other health effects like type 2 diabetes.” Food poverty leads to social isolation, with negative consequences for mental health.

Barra Roantree, an economist at the Institute for Economic and Social Research, said: ‘We know that this surge in inflation is disproportionately affecting low-income and older households’, mainly due to rising costs fuel.

Citing Central Bank figures released in November showing inflation was 5.4% for the lowest-income fifth of households and around 4.6% for the highest-income households, he said it was “because lower-income households spend a greater share of their income”. their total heat and energy revenues.

He said economic growth in recent years had been “inclusive”.

“There is a risk that higher inflation will reverse some of the gains [in lessening inequality] we have been doing in recent years”. he said.

Any government intervention should be ‘timely and targeted’, Dr Roantree said, suggesting a ‘one-time bonus for welfare recipients’ similar to the Christmas bonus, to be timed to coincide with bills.

According to Dr Keilthy: “It is essential that the basic rates of social protection are increased. The immediate need is to at least match inflation to basic welfare rates.

“We would also like to see an increase in supports for families who receive the payment for working families. This crisis highlights where the deficits in our social protection system lie and why it needs to be weighed against the real costs that households face. »

She welcomed the ideas of a utility hardship fund and a rent arrears fund, which would be funded by the government and available either through community social workers or service providers. public services.

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