Eamon Gilmore said last week that marriage equality is the civil rights issue of our generation.
While I believe wholeheartedly that gay people should be treated equally in every way, I disagree with him; mainly because I think this issue is very close to being resolved. And because I think the Labour Party is trying to use the issue of marriage equality in a ‘tick-the-box’ list of its achievements in Government, which, up to now, have been fairly non-existent.
Economic inequality is the civil rights issue of this generation.
Not since the Great Depression (which is starting to look like a minor blip in comparison to what we’re experiencing now) has there been such polarisation between rich and poor, and such insecurity for ‘have nots’ in Western society.
Peter Horgan’s article in this week’s edition about a woman who faces homelessness due to changes made to the rent allowance scheme is the perfect example of where the recession and an absolute lack of political will to tackle poverty and exclusion meet.
The system of rent allowance is the worst kind of handout.
It doesn’t improve the quality of accommodation, it feeds taxpayers’ money directly into the hands of wealthy private individuals, and it ends up making the poor poorer.
It is, in effect, paying the mortgages of landlords from the taxes of everybody, benefiting nobody, except those landlords and the banks we have already paid for.
How much more unequal could it get?
The most recent Daft Rental Report found that rents are up in urban areas including Cork. In the face of rising fuel costs, dropping wage and welfare levels, and increasing poverty, this was welcomed by commentators as a sign that the economy is recovering. Nothing could be further from the truth.
What it means is that people who were previously financially secure enough to buy property are no longer in that position. As Triona Dunlea from Davis Hunter Auctioneers told us recently, they are meeting young couples who must rent because they can’t get mortgages, and are aware they may have to emigrate.
The average rent in Cork City for a two-bedroom house is €192.50 per week.
Against all the evidence, Mary* received a letter from the Department of Social Protection, telling her that rents are going down. Mary’s rent is €162.70 per week. That is €1.15 over the department’s threshold for what’s acceptable.
The problem here is neither that rent allowance is too high (pushing up rental costs for those not availing of it) nor too low (pushing people like Mary out of her home), though both of those things are problems. The problem is that it exists at all.
Both the working poor - of whom there are now very many - and those who are not working need an accommodation solution that will allow them to live in dignity and without constant fear of eviction.