HAT is worrying for rural Ireland is the confirmation by the latest Survey of Living in Rural Ireland, published last week by the Central Statistics Office (CSO), that there are more than 350,000 people in rural areas at risk of poverty, surviving on net incomes less than €10,453 per annum. The figures, which are in respect of 2013, show that the number of people in rural Ireland living in consistent poverty has more than doubled in the five years since 2008, amounting to 194,127 people.
These figures bear out those published last year in a report by Teagasc, entitled the ‘Index of the Economic Strength of Rural Towns in Ireland,’ which found that poverty rates in small towns with a population of 1,500 or more were double those in our cities. They surveyed around 300 rural towns nationwide and their immediate hinterlands, accounting for about one-third of the country’s population, and identified the need for concerted government action to be taken to address the economic problems of these communities, which are obviously not benefitting from job creation to the same extent as the bigger urban centres and are already being left behind by the recovery.
It must be remembered that, during the economic crisis, unemployment in rural areas increased by 192%, while the increase in urban areas was 114%, so it is no surprise that the rates of increase in poverty and deprivation were confirmed by the latest CSO survey. Small town rural Ireland was also blighted by the emigration of a generation of young people for whom there is still little to come back to.
There is a bit of building activity starting again, but more needs to be done to help small and medium enterprises create sustainable jobs in rural areas. One major infrastructural deficiency that is proving an impediment is slow broadband speeds in peripheral areas.
However, as well as creating jobs, there is a moral obligation on policymakers to address the increase in consistent poverty that has been a consequence of the downturn. When the IMF – whose insistence on austerity led to a lot of deprivation – came to Dublin last week, Finance Minister Michael Noonan acknowledged that there had been a failure to take into account the effects these policies would have on people.
Economic decisions have social consequences and dealing with these needs to be factored into future planning. In the meantime, however, the social fall-out from the austerity policies of recent years needs to be addressed urgently by government in order to stop the gap between the haves and the have-nots widening even further and to start rebuilding towards a fairer society in which everybody can live with dignity.