Politico is running a series of interviews with Irish people living on the verge of poverty. These people will be severly impacted by cuts to welfare in the coming budget. In the first article, a Dundalk man describes the basic necessities his family can no longer since he became unemployed in 2008. [Interviews conducted in conjunction with the European Anti-Poverty Network.]
Roger has been unemployed for nearly two years. He lives in Dundalk with his family and previously worked for 20 years as a qualified electrician. In 2003, he was in a car accident and injured his back.
“I decided to retrain at that stage,” he says. “I did my leaving certificate and a FAS course in Computer Aided Design (CAD). After that, I got a job drawing electrical diagrams in a local company. Unfortunately, the company was based on the high end housing market – it was flying during the boom and it died during the bust.”
“As soon as I was given my forms, I went down to the local social welfare office. They told me I’d have to wait, because my wife was self employed. I think I waited two to three weeks. We got paid by the month in the company, so I still had that buffer of a month’s salary and I was used to budgeting a month in advance as opposed to getting paid every week.”
Roger has been looking for suitable employment since he lost his job and he remains sceptical about the value of further training.
“I’ve been trained in the private sector; I did a full year in a FAS course. That got my foot in the door of CAD. Then I trained myself in night classes to build myself up and get more qualifications. I keep hearing ‘more training, more training’, but I am trained. I love doing courses; I wish I’d stayed on in school. I went back in my mid-thirties to do my leaving cert, then I night classes and I enjoyed those as well. I don’t understand why the government is putting vast sums of money into training people like me who already have a number of good qualifications. What do they want to train me for? I’m a trained electrician; I’m trained in computer aided design up to level five. So do I go back and retrain as a plasterer? What do I retrain as? I’d be far more interested if the Government put its energy into creating jobs that I could actually apply for as opposed to retraining me as a chef or something.”
Roger is deeply critical of how training for the unemployed has developed in his own area. When he looked into the kind of courses that were available, he was offered a choice of welding or paving, neither of which he considered either viable from an employment point of view or a sensible addition to the skills that he’d already developed over a lifetime of work and training experience.
“There’s no demand for paving, they’re tarmacing roads for God’s sake. Welding is the same. What do you need a thousand poorly qualified welders in Dundalk for? But still they take them in and pump them out. The sad thing is you’ve got highly qualified people signing on. When I sign on I see them, ‘I say there’s a guy who’s an electrician’ or ‘there’s a guy who’s qualified in something else’ and despite all that they’re offered paving. Its nonsense and some of them are doing it. Just to get out of the house. That kind of approach to training just won’t work.”
In the last six years, there has been a 238% increase in the number of people on the live register in Louth. Roger is one of over 18,500 people currently seeking work in the county.
“There is just absolutely nothing out there. The electrical industry in Ireland is unusual. It’s particularly difficult for electricians in Ireland at the moment. At the height of the boom there were vast numbers of electrical apprentices. They did their four years and then they’d take on two apprentices and so on. So within eight years you might have quadrupled or more the number of electricians that you have working in the area. I’ve considered moving abroad but it’s just not really an option. My youngest son is ten, my middle guy is just nearly eighteen and my eldest is nineteen, he’s doing his leaving cert. It would be impossible to move now. I could go on my own but then would you earn enough to justify keeping your family here while you’re away somewhere else? I discussed it with my wife but I’m forty four this year. Starting again in a new country with kids at home in Ireland? No.”
Roger says that his life has been totally transformed since he lost his job two years ago. His wife’s childcare business folded as the recession deepened, which meant that a formerly two income household became reliant on social welfare benefit.
“We lost our home. We had a big comfortable house, but we lost that. We’re now living in a three bedroom semi, one bathroom complete with mould. We’re renting it. I’ve three kids; we haven’t been on a holiday in three years. Other things like clothes are a huge issue. My sons aren’t working and they can’t even get part-time work so things like shoes are a problem. They’re young men and they have girlfriends but I’m not even talking about money for going out, I’m talking about things like school shoes. The 10 year old the other day said ‘Dad look at my runners, they’re wrecked’. OK so you’ve to go down and buy runners. Then two days later you might have to replace the school shoes as well. That’s a big, big chunk out of your budget. If surprise expenses come along, then we’re in big trouble. We are trying our best. My wife is very good at it; she ran her own business for years so she’s good at budgeting. We do say ‘right well it’s Friday, instead of waiting for the ESB bill to come in lets go on last month’s bill and put some money aside’.
“We manage with bills but it’s the smaller things that are problematic. I’m not talking about socialising because that’s gone, I’m not talking about going on holidays because that’s gone but I’m talking about simple things that we took for granted; like getting out of the house or going to visit friends or family. It’s totally changed; a wedding invitation is a summons now. It’s become ‘how can we get out of going to this because we just haven’t got the money to go?’”
“Even going up the town for a coffee is a big deal. Today is Wednesday. I have a euro in my pocket. I didn’t want to bring any more because I knew that if I was here (Dublin) and the train was delayed, I might go for a coffee and a sandwich but then you suddenly realise that you’ve spent ten euro on a coffee and a sandwich when there’s jars of coffee at home. I didn’t take any money with me because I knew I would have been tempted to go for a coffee or whatever and I just can’t afford it because that’s ten euro gone. It’s funny when I think about it because I used to spend that on my lunch break. My wife feels it more I think, even in terms of clothes for herself. Things you took for granted like buying a book or a magazine. If one of the kids asks for a magazine then that means you have to take that money from something else. That can be hard and disheartening. All the small things add up at the end of the week. If I bought a sandwich, a coffee and a paper today I’d feel guilty because I know that I could spend that money on something else, something that’s vital. ‘Stuff’ was something we got very used to when we were both working and when we both had a good income.”
Roger says that although he was dreading the social welfare cuts before last year’s budget, he and his family coped surprisingly well because they’d budgeted for cuts in advance. He point out that he and his family – like thousands around the country – are now effectively stretched to the limit and would really struggle to endure further reductions.
“We had budgeted for a bit of a drop. I can’t honestly say that we suffered. That’s not to say that we’d be able to cope with the same again. We can survive on what we earn, but it’s not living. We can wake up, eat and keep relatively warm. Last winter was exceptionally cold and we did struggle at times with heating bills. You have to be very aware of how much oil you’re going through. We were never aware before. When we were working, you’d knock on the heating if it was a bit chilly, now you put a coat on. That adjustment is quite hard. My kids found it very difficult because they never had to deal with that. They were a bit stunned at the beginning but they’re coping very well. Like all kids they are doing remarkably well, they’re being remarkably patient but its small things that get you down.”
“My son asked during the week if he could borrow a fiver. Now we all know that you don’t borrow a fiver, you never see it again!” he laughs. “I had to tell him that I didn’t have it because the coal man was just after coming. I told him I’d give it to you tomorrow. He said no its OK and he headed out. Now he was grand, fine about it but he was out the door and I was thinking Jesus I can’t give my son a fiver to go up the town. That’s hard.”
Roger says that he could be optimistic about the future if he felt that the government understood the concerns of people like him, if there was a real focus on job creation, or even a genuine effort to strip away the barriers to starting a business.
“You keep hearing Ministers saying that we’re going to have to bring in high-skilled, training courses so that we can encourage high end jobs here. That’s alright for the minority who are already highly educated but the rest of us aren’t even qualified to apply for these high skilled courses, let alone the jobs if they ever appear. The high end might be twenty per cent but what about the other eight per cent who are average? If you look at my son’s class, yes the top 20% will probably go to university if their parents can afford it. The rest will look for jobs and there will easily be another 25% who might just end up on the dole. I’d say 70 or 80 per cent of them are trying to get some sort of course; something, anything. Most of them are trying to get into university. What are they going to do if they get into a FAS course? Paving or welding? “
“There needs to be a focus on grassroots, community based employment. Spend the money on small jobs, rather than a million per head to encourage an electronics company to come in from Malaysia or something like that. Spend fifty thousand a head to get twenty guys off the dole. They don’t have to do high end jobs, get them to do ordinary jobs. It needs to start at a local level. It’s more than just a job; it’s about giving people a sense of pride.”
Roger recently took part in a workshop on the 2010 Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, held by EAPN Ireland, the Community Workers’ Cooperative and the Social Inclusion Division.