Two recent reports have cast light on issues of poverty and deprivation in Northern Ireland. The first, by researchers from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster, came to the rather worrying conclusion that more than one-third of children in Northern Ireland live below the poverty line.1 Other findings included:
- More than two-thirds of single parents are in poverty.
- More than half of the households containing a disabled person are in poverty (56 per cent, compared with a figure of 29 per cent of those families without a disabled member).
- Catholics are nearly one and a half times as likely as Protestants to live in poor households.
The report is the result of a survey, with a representative sample of more than 3,100 people. The researchers adopted a “relative” definition of poverty based on income and inability to afford items or activities that are generally considered as necessities of life, such as being able to pay utility bills on time. The authors conclude from their findings that Northern Ireland is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world.
The second report, undertaken by Gingerbread NI and the University of Ulster, found that children living in one-parent families were twice as likely to be poor and often felt stigmatised.2 The report recommended, among other things, an increase in income support levels, an increase in the minimum wage (to make employment a more viable option) and the greater availability of educational mentoring and parent support programmes.
The researchers were keen to assess the experiences of children growing up in one-parent families in terms of emotional, financial and educational dimensions. They concluded that more support was needed for one-parent families to prevent disadvantages being felt by children as they were growing up.
Both reports raise worrying concerns about poverty in Northern Ireland in general and in relation to children in particular. A recent Unicef report, based on survey data on nearly 1.2 million children in 46 countries, also raises worrying concerns.3 It indicates that more than one billion children are suffering poverty. This is the largest survey of children and poverty ever carried out, but its findings are not encouraging. The Northern Ireland figures, while worrying in their own right, should therefore not be seen in isolation. Child poverty is clearly a widespread problem, felt more acutely in some geographical areas than others, but not restricted to those areas.
Social work has long been criticised for concentrating too narrowly on individual or family circumstances without taking adequate account of wider social, political and economic circumstances. These research reports emphasise just how important it is to see social work problems as, in part at least, manifestations of wider social problems. Of course, social work cannot, in itself, solve these broader problems, but we can at least make a contribution and take account of the wider context in seeking to assist those who need our help.
Neil Thompson is an independent consultant with Avenue Consulting (www.avenueconsulting.co.uk ). He is the author of Communication and Language: A Handbook of Theory and Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)
1 Paddy Hillyard, Grace Kelly, Eithne McLaughlin, Demi Patsios and Mike Tomlinson, Bare Necessities: Poverty and Social Exclusion in Northern Ireland, from Democratic Dialogue, 23 University Street, Belfast BT7 1FY (tel 028 9022 0050), £7.50 (£4 unwaged, £10 institutions) plus postage and package
2 From Strength to Strength is available from Gingerbread NI (Tel 029 9023 1417)
3 Child Poverty in the Developing World, published by Unicef, can be downloaded from www.unicef.org/media/files/Child_poverty.pdf