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The government is failing some of society’s most vulnerable. Debate around a living wage ebbs and flows, but there’s been little evidence of progress on addressing the low rate of disability allowance.
In 2019, Regina Doherty, then Fine Gael minister at the Department for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, commissioned research into the cost of disability in Ireland. The survey would examine the extra living costs such as medication, heating and transport costs, that are accrued as a result of living with a disability.
A survey was launched towards the end of 2020, but no final report has as yet been released. In the meantime, the rate of disability allowance has stood at €203 a week, significantly below the minimum wage, and even further below the living wage.
Why would someone with a disability or chronic illness that substantially restricts their ability to work be worth less than others? Is the government suggesting that only those in full-time employment are worth a “living wage” life?
The European Anti Poverty Network (EAPN) Ireland said that, as of 2017, the at-risk-of-poverty threshold was €239.95 a week, or €12,521 a year. At the moment those reliant on disability allowance are living below this. The EAPN’s research also highlights how those in receipt of disability allowance are at a much higher risk of falling into long-term poverty.
As we are constantly reminded, the cost of living in Ireland is high and anyone who bears the scars from room or house hunting will know this intimately. Imagine trying to build up a deposit and find somewhere to call home, on such a small income. Some may find it troubling to consider disability allowance income. However, for some, it is all they have coming in.
In December 2020, Taoiseach Micheál Martin talked about the need in Ireland for a living wage. A living wage is defined as that required to cover basic needs and pay for an acceptable standard of living, and is currently benchmarked at €12.30 per hour. Tot up 35 hours a week at €12.30, and it comes out to €430.50, more than double the disability allowance of €203.
One can argue that those on disability get other benefits that compensate for the low weekly payment. However, these are not without their complications. Being able to apply for the housing assistance payment (HAP) can be helpful to those hunting for a room or house to rent. Although this is an improvement on the previous rent supplement, there are still landlords who discriminate against those in receipt of HAP, and it doesn’t fully get around the issue of exceptionally high rents, as tenants can end up paying a growing top-up.
Further, many cannot simply move to a cheaper area of the country when, for example, their healthcare is based in Dublin. It is no secret that the healthcare system in Ireland is unbalanced. I have lost track of the number of times that I have met inpatients and outpatients at Dublin’s Mater Hospital from Cavan, Monaghan, Donegal, Kildare, Offaly and elsewhere.
Moving further away from the centre of one’s healthcare can have a negative impact. Try to consider the exhaustion one must feel, navigating public transport, while dealing with dialysis or an autoimmune disease, going through a multi-hour journey for a single appointment. And then having to repeat every time a new test, a new appointment is needed.
If disability allowance were higher, then there might not be so much need for extra allowances. Although no one is denying how important medical cards and travel cards are, it is a sad state of affairs that a wealthy country such as Ireland has to provide top-ups such as these to make life somewhat manageable for those most in need.
We’re still in a pandemic in which thousands have died or fallen ill. “Long covid” is not going to go away, and it is likely there will be an increase in applications for disability allowance as a result.
Although these things often come down to economics, it is a measure of how as a society we treat the most vulnerable, and I would argue that we are currently failing. It has been too easy to turn a blind eye to disability allowance in the past, but it is no longer acceptable to continue to sideline the issue.
Martin’s comments about a living wage highlight a discrepancy between the way the government thinks of those who work and those who cannot because of a disability, as if they should expect much less than others.
This is emphasised by the fact that the top rate for the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP), currently €300 per week, is much higher than disability allowance. Our worth should not be measured solely by economic input and output. With the disability allowance rate being so low it is incredibly difficult to thrive when one is just trying to survive.
It is time that Ireland said the disabled are equal citizens deserving of equal rights and an equal chance at living a good life. It is not just a question of money, but a question of what sort of country we want to live in.