A divided state

why inequality persists in Ireland

Paula Clancy02/01/2019

Dr. Paula Clancy is founding director of the independent, progressive Think Tank TASC (Think Tank for Action on Social Change) which she helped set up nearly 20 years ago to address economic inequality in Ireland.  As she steps down as Chair of the Think Tank, she takes a candid look at the state of inequality in Ireland today, and ahead of an election focused year, proposes TASC’s ‘Five Point Plan’ for a more equal society. The aricle can also be found here: https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/paula-clancy-we-have-to-make-right-choices-that-will-build-a-fairer-society-37668655.html


Almost 20 years ago, concerned about the extent of economic inequality in an Ireland that was at the same time being presented as a prosperous and forward looking society, I and others   set up TASC, a public education charity aimed at raising public knowledge about the negative consequences of inequality.  We sought to make Ireland a more equal, flourishing society.


Since then, we have had five elections, five different governments in varying combinations of political parties and philosophies, a “boom” and a global headlining economic bust, which was in large part a result of the increasing concentration of wealth over the previous decades.  This, as we know, was followed by close to a decade-long programme of penalising austerity, which has impacted most on those who could least afford it.


So what has changed?  Very little it would seem.  While TASC, and many other organisations, have produced policy analysis after policy analysis to help veer Ireland in a more equal economic direction, we remain one of the most unequal countries in Europe. 


In fact, as an upcoming TASC report will show, Ireland continues to be among the most unequal countries in Europe when it comes to market-income inequality.  While this is mitigated through state supports that enable us to hold the line as average across Europe, we are still not seeing the kind of political action that would indicate a fundamental improvement is on the way.


It is now almost a truism to reiterate that economic inequality is not an inevitable outcome of a market economy but is rather a result of conscious political choices.  The fact that we have had little or no change in our levels of inequality in almost 30 years, and certainly since we set up TASC, suggests, at the very least, an abject failure by policy makers to appreciate the seriousness of the issue or to heed the analysis and the policy proposals that could have given us all a much more equal 2019 to look forward to.


Instead we are facing into a new year, living in a country with a set of particular labour market institutions, that, as a TASC report will again set out in 2019, actually predisposes Ireland to high levels of inequality. 


But it doesn’t have to be this way. 


Over the years, TASC, and indeed others, have  developed a series of evidence-based policy proposals which if acted upon would do much to alter this dispiriting picture.  So, as we face into a new year with local and European elections, and the ever-present likelihood of a General Election, TASC will draw from its work to propose a new Plan for a more equal, prosperous society. 


The first thing we have to address is our unfair income distribution model.  Economic inequality tends to be driven by the gains of the upper classes and the rich at the expense of the working class and the poor.  For Ireland, most recent research indicates that the bottom 40% of our population receives 22% of the national income while the top 10% receives almost 25% of the national income.  So, in Ireland, the top decile has been doing very nicely over the past 20 or 30 years in particular, and the top one percent in particular.  But, shamefully, the bottom 40% has received much less in national income per capita.  In particular, emerging evidence shows that a comparatively low share of income goes to the working-to-lower middle income classes.  If we are to reduce inequality, we have to protect all those at the lower end, including the working poor. Outside the upper echelons, high living costs put a strain on living standards, in no small part due to lack of public investment and provision in key areas.


As such improving economic equality will not be achieved through income related actions alone. Such action needs to be supported by the delivery of quality, affordable and what at this stage, should be regarded as essential public services, especially in health, housing and childcare.  Equality is not just influenced by pay and income distribution, but by the existence of, or in Ireland, the lack of, universal provision in public services.  Looking at TASC’s most recent pieces of research on health inequality and precarious work in particular, it is evident that too many people are at even greater risk of poverty and deprivation because they are simply struggling to keep a roof over their heads, can’t visit their GP because of the high cost of health, or simply can’t work because of the high cost of childcare.  If we are to make Ireland a more equal society, among the things we we need to implement – not just talk about – are a Marshall Plan type programme of affordable home building, we need to implement Sláintecare and we need to see early childcare as an automatic state provision, not a bonus.


Finally and critically  we have to  tackle our “flexible” labour market.  In reality, as TASC research on precarious work has so vividly demonstrated, it is workers who offer great flexibility to employers.  Ireland has among the highest rates of deprivation among employed persons in the EU-15.  Compounding this, union membership and coverage are low when compared to other European countries, and labour protection is comparatively weak.  We don’t yet recognise the right to collective bargaining, which is an accepted process in most of the most egalitarian societies in Europe.  The negative consequence of this is an unusually high incidence of low pay, precarious working conditions and a high risk of working poverty in Ireland, felt most acutely by younger workers and women. 


We do have choices.  There are alternatives available that can make Ireland a more equal place. We just have to decide what Five Point Plan we want to follow over the coming years – one that continues to divide us or one that unites us as a functioning, equal state.  And then, our policy makers just need to listen.

Posted in: Inequality

Tagged with: inequality

Dr Paula Clancy

Clancy, Paula

Dr Paula Clancy was founding director of TASC. She served in that position from 2001 to 2010 and returned to it for a brief period from 2014 to 2015. She is a member of the Board of TASC and is Chair of the TASC Research and Policy Committee. Prior to 2001, Paula held senior academic and management posts in third level education. Paula is author/co-author of a range of major research projects in the fields of political analysis and democratic accountability. She has authored a number of articles on the consequences of austerity in Ireland since the crisis.



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