‘Food Poverty in Ireland’ by Michael Drew
Food poverty is a significant problem in Ireland, affecting at least 7% of the population (350,000 people) and rising. However, there is a low level of awareness of the issue and the extent of its impact on many families.
I was motivated to write this book through familiarity with the tireless work of the SVP and other charities. There is an urgent need to raise the profile of food poverty and give a voice to those who live through it.
- Households at a relatively high risk of food poverty included lone parents with children, those renting at or below the market rate (eg in social housing), the unemployed and ill/disabled.
- This study, which was based on interviews with more than 40 users of food aid in the Dublin area, enabled people affected by food poverty to voice their experiences. Respondents who turn to food aid for assistance have very difficult lives, many experiencing hunger on a regular basis, often combined with ill health and onerous caring responsibilities.
- Social exclusion was a common experience, as respondents frequently could not afford to participate in important social events involving family, friends and the local community. The interviews also revealed the emotional impacts of food poverty, which included severe stress and anxiety in trying to make ends meet and provide for their families. Self-blame, shame and embarrassment about their situation were also commonplace and it was clear that there is a very significant stigma associated with seeking food aid.
- Respondents used a variety of coping strategies, with survival on low-income forcing them to make extremely difficult decisions about how to prioritise spending. Expenditure on food was often a relatively low priority, ranked below rent and energy costs. Children were the highest priority and respondents frequently went without food and other necessities to provide for them.
- Those who relied on social welfare found income protection inadequate to maintain a minimum standard of living. There is a lack of responsiveness and flexibility of the social welfare system to support the needs of those with insecure work in low-paid sectors. Other issues include the duration of some temporary welfare payments (eg. the Fuel Allowance), and persistent welfare traps. Lack of social housing resulted in reliance on the expensive private rental market, where many experienced serious difficulties with the operation of housing allowances. The inability to access affordable housing sometimes gave rise to the experience of homelessness. Those with an illness or disability found the Disability Allowance inadequate.
- There are multiple barriers to employment, including inadequate educational supports. Issues with the availability and affordability of childcare also presented a barrier to employment for low-income households with children.
- A further driver of food poverty is insecure, temporary work in low-paid sectors, which is shown to have negative impacts on health and well-being. Precarious work is exacerbated by relatively weak employment protection in Ireland, which has facilitated arrangements, such as false self-employment. In addition, respondents in receipt of the Working Family Payment found that it was inadequate.
In conclusion, the findings in my book demonstrate that various policies and practices of government and employers contribute to food poverty.
Rather than expanding food charity that fails to tackle the structural causes, food poverty needs to be addressed with further investment in Ireland’s anti-poverty infrastructure. The Government’s Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020–2025 sets challenging poverty reduction targets, which align with its Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1 to eradicate poverty by 2030. The Government has established a target to reduce consistent poverty to 2% or less by 2025 (from 5.6% in 2018) and committed to move the wages floor to a living wage during the Government’s lifetime. This is not enough!
Acting now on food poverty would send a clear signal of serious intent to meet these targets. Much progress can be made through the introduction of a living wage, income security and a responsive, adequately funded welfare system. I hope that this book will help inform policy responses to address the root causes of food poverty in Ireland.