Recession and welfare reform hits Northern Ireland hard says new report

By agency reporter
4 May 2012

People in Northern Ireland are caught between the impact of the recession and a programme of austerity and welfare reform, according to new research published on 2 May.

The report, Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Northern Ireland, found poverty in working households and poverty among pensioners has increased.

Published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the research looks at what has happened since the recession started in 2009, and the ways it has hit Northern Ireland particularly hard.

The authors found:

* An increase in the number of people in poverty living in working households – now half of the 120,000 children living in poverty live with a working parent.
* An increase in the number of retired households living in poverty, up from 55,000 to 70,000. Over a fifth of pensioners (21 per cent) in Northern Ireland live in poverty, with a growing gap emerging between their counterparts in Great Britain, where 16 per cent are in poverty.
* The attainment gap between children on free school meals and those who are not is sizeable and not closing. More than two thirds (69 per cent) of pupils on free school meals are failing to obtain five GCSEs at A* - C. On leaving school, poor pupils are twice as likely as other pupils to be unemployed or out of touch with education services.

The research also highlights the challenges facing Northern Ireland.

With a higher proportion of people claiming disability benefits in Northern Ireland, reform to the welfare system – and additional welfare cuts outlined in the Budget – is likely to have a significant impact on claimants. The increased requirements on people to look for work will be more keenly felt due to the larger number of people with disabilities.

The gap in employment rates between men and women has narrowed steadily, while the disparity in hourly pay rates has also been reduced. But with the deepest of public sector spending reductions yet to begin, progress on women’s employment and pay is threatened. The public sector constitutes a third of Northern Ireland’s jobs market, with much of the workforce made up of women.

The report calls on governments and policy-makers in Stormont and Westminster to address factors that have left more young and elderly people in poverty. In particular, the report highlights the rise of in-work poverty and the impact of welfare reform on disability claimants. Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: "Our report shows that 22 per cent of people in Northern Ireland were living in poverty in the three years to 2009-10. It's a tragedy that the most vulnerable in society – young and retired people - are suffering the very worst effects of the recession.

"Some 60,000 children live in poverty in working households, and those leaving school see their options diminished. If work and training opportunities are squeezed further, they suffer more than most. It's vital school leavers are given the opportunities and tools to find good jobs."

Tom MacInnes, author of the report, added: "While things have not got dramatically worse, the situation in Northern Ireland is not much better and some worrying trends have emerged since our report in 2009.

"The requirement for more people with disabilities to find work as part of welfare reforms could have a disproportionate impact in Northern Ireland. This is at a time when the proportion of working age adults not in paid work is rising. So even if the jobs are available, there has to be suitable support provided as well."

[Ekk/4]

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