Wednesday 17 January 2018

Poverty of aspiration

30 years ago The Beloved worked for a non-profit in the NE of England which helped to remedy deficits in the fuel- efficiency of housing stock in Geordieland. £200-worth of fibre-glass attic insulation would pay for itself over 18 months in savings on fuel bills - £2,000-worth of double-glazing? not so good. The poor people who most needed to be winter-warm could never aspire to a spare £200 now, so were condemned to spending extra on heating forever. The non-profit was sometimes able to break this cycle.  TB would explain to me that their concern was about Fuel Poverty; but now matter how s l o w l y she spoke I didn't see how Fuel Poverty differed from, well, poverty. To my mind, money is money and poverty is when you can't get enough it. Money is above all fungible: exchangeable for whatever goods and services you require or desire.

As I drive to work, I have 35 minutes of listening-to-the-wireless time: usually Newstalk-FM until the snarking between Paul Williams and Shane Coleman gets insupportable and I flip to RTE1. On Friday last they were on about homelessness again. The fact that 8, 9, 10 thousand people, including small children and unhappy teenagers, are languishing in 'emergency accommodation' is perennial comment-fodder for the listening classes. I think Friday's chatter was triggered by the re-appointment of Conor Skehan [L] to head the Housing Agency for an extra year on top of his 5 year stint which just expired. Why being re-appointed in what is clearly an interim measure? Because HR at the Ministry of Quangology couldn't arrange a timely replacement process. Why is it news-worthy? Because Mr Skehan had unhelpfully suggested that some people were 'gaming the system' to get a house for their family.  Even if it is true, it is not helpful for the chair of the Housing Agency to articulate the idea.

Is it true? In what sense is it true? Ciara Kelly another Newstalk host, who was a GP for 20 years, said that many of her patients had asked for an Asthma Cert or a Clinical Depression Cert to present to their local housing authority. That is gaming the system. But then again, so is claiming to be living with your Ex and the three kids when you aren't. The first <coff coff wheeze wheeze> image should trigger your empathy gland; the second not-so-much? Indeed "claiming to be living with your Ex and the three kids when you aren't" quite possibly conjures up a shaven head, facial metal-work, drink, beatings and fags at the bookies. More importantly this Gamer of the System <basstid!> becomes enormous in the foreground of the mind eclipsing the single mum with two small boys living in a hotel bedroom without cooking or laundry facilities.

Newstalk then interviewed Beth Watts, a housing policist [it's a word now] from Heriot-Watt U in Scotland. Her take on the Skehan quote was that in the UK, the debate had moved on from that sort of victim-shaming. [prev: victim blaming on Newstalk] Across the water, all the stake-holders acknowledge that there is a crisis. They don't all agree about the solution, but they aren't in denial about the existence of a housing problem. A year ago, I set out my own eviction and homelessness credentials. People like Dr Watts gather data, analyse it and put it in geographical, historical and sociological context. They hope that their position papers will inform politicians and government agencies to do something about the problem. In Ireland, this involves a febrile flutter of activity when a chap dies in the street 100m from the national parliament, which then sinks back exhausted when the News cameras focus elsewhere. Because of our Christian cultural bedrock, Matthew 26:11 "For ye have the poor always with you" is floating on the edge on any debate about deprivation; whether it be lack of fuel, lack of food, or lack of roof. Because there have always been people who couldn't settle happily in normal accommodation (because of drugs, derangement or depression?) we collectively tolerate 10,000 people statistics who are living hand to mouth. In Scotland, you have a Right to be housed by the state, in Ireland you have to beg and finagle and, well, game. As Dr Watts put it "The idea that homelessness is impossible to eradicate shows a certain poverty of aspiration, doesn't it?".Quite so! You can hear the Newstalk Beth Watts interview (scroll about 25% through to start) and she has a reasonably high-profile presence on the interweb if you have access to google.

Footnotes: NewstalkFM have decided to give 2 hours of Saturday airtime back to George Hook, who was suspended last year for putting foot-in-mouth again wrt sexual assault. If you want to be there for the next gaffe as it lollops out of his gob, you'll have to tune in.  Then again, maybe it is being broadcast with a 10 minute lag with the station's lawyer ready to edit anything which is more deeply inappropriate than usual. With 4.7 million people in this our Republic, is it so hard to find an aspiring radio presenter? . . . younger? . . . with more X chromosomes? . . . and a mortgage still to pay off? Finding a really talented unemployed presenter living in a hotel room or sleeping on a friend's couch with a child at foot: that would be a coup.

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