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From boom to bust – the experience of the Society of St Vincent de Paul

Caroline Fahey and Brendan Hennessy*

SVP during the boomToC

Even during the boom years, the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) was spending up to €46 million per year providing assistance to people in need. This was at a time when it was assumed that a rising tide had lifted all boats. The SVP was providing cash assistance, food, clothing, furniture and help with the cost of education and fuel at a time when increases in social welfare payments were being eroded by increasing inflation. In addition, SVP services such as holiday homes, social housing, homeless hostels, youth clubs and resource centres were in demand throughout the ‘good’ years.

That is not to say that people experiencing poverty and disadvantage did not benefit from economic growth. Poverty rates fell from 19.7 per cent in 2003 to 13.9 per cent in 2008 which is to be welcomed. During the boom years, the SVP’s Dublin regional office, the largest in the country, saw a levelling off in the number of requests for assistance received. Increases in social welfare, pensions and child benefit made a big difference to the lives of people in receipt of these payments and played a significant role in reducing poverty rates.

However at the same time as having high growth rates and low unemployment, Ireland had higher than average rates of welfare recipiency among people of working age in comparison to other English speaking countries (Sweeney, 2009). The fact that over 600,000 people are still living in poverty, along with the failure to tackle the high rate of welfare recipiency among people of working age and our inadequate levels of public services, explains why the SVP was not put out of business by the economic boom.

SVP in 2009ToC

During 2009 the Social Justice and Policy team was keen to investigate the impact of the recession on SVP services and the people we assist. Given the media and policy focus on an emerging ‘middle class poor’, affected by recent job losses and mortgage arrears, we expected to find that our Conferences (local branches) and regional offices would see a considerable change in the needs and profile of clients.

Our regional offices in Dublin, Cork and the Mid West reported a significant increase in the volume of requests for assistance they were receiving. However, an analysis of the requests for assistance revealed that the largest group requesting assistance were lone parents (Lone parents are the household type with the highest poverty rate. In 2008 36.4 per cent of lone parents were at risk of poverty, with almost one in five experiencing consistent poverty (CSO, 2009)). The vast majority of people requesting assistance were in receipt of social welfare; and their main needs were for assistance with the cost of food and fuel. A very small proportion of needs related to the recession (for example, recent job losses, pay cuts or reduced working hours, experiencing delays or barriers to accessing social welfare payments or problems with mortgage repayments). 15 to 18 per cent of all requests for assistance came from foreign nationals. However the number of foreign nationals requesting assistance in the Dublin regional office increased by 78 per cent between 2008 and 2009.

The information available from SVP Conferences tallies with this. The majority of issues raised by SVP Conferences/Areas were needs for food, fuel, education and housing in typically deprived areas. Lone parents and foreign nationals were identified as particularly vulnerable groups being assisted. A general sense of increased demand or requests from people ‘newly in need’ was noticeable by its absence. Conferences consistently reported expectations of having to assist ‘new poor’ but in many cases had yet to give assistance. Where mortgage arrears and large debts were mentioned by Conferences, it tended to refer to specific cases rather than a general trend.

It appears that, in spite of what we might have expected, the needs and profile of the people being assisted by the SVP did not change immediately as a result of the recession and the SVP continues to address a wide variety of need amongst a growing number of vulnerable individuals and families.

SVP members remain anxious to identify and reach out to people who are newly in need as a result of the recession and who may be reluctant to request assistance from the SVP. Reduced eligibility for Jobseeker’s Benefit may result in more people who have experienced job losses contacting the SVP for assistance. Jobseeker’s Benefit can now only be paid for a maximum of twelve months, after which the recipient must undergo a means test for Jobseeker’s Allowance. Many people who are receiving Jobseeker’s Benefit on the basis of their social insurance contributions will find that they are eligible only for a reduced amount of Jobseeker’s Allowance, or indeed may not receive the payment at all, seriously reducing the household income. New ways of assisting people and new advocacy directions may need to be developed in order to ensure that we are responding to the needs out there and targeting our advocacy efforts to gain improvements for those most in need.

However, our evidence suggests that most of the people being assisted by the SVP are those who are helped on a regular basis and are living on long term social welfare payments. The cuts to social welfare and child benefit made in Budget 2010 and the removal of the Christmas Bonus have had a very negative impact on people who are reliant on a social welfare income (see also Harford, this issue). However, public opinion did not challenge this decision, which was made in spite of research demonstrating that welfare rates were already inadequate for people to afford a basic standard of living and in spite of government commitments to reduce poverty levels.

Where to from here?ToC

The SVP wishes to help develop an inclusive society that does not see people having to worry about and scramble for resources, and where good quality public services can be accessed by all. We need to develop a clearer understanding of how we got to where we are, and rather than trying to get back to where we were, how best to develop a socially just society based on the common good. Undoubtedly the work and the mission of the Society of St Vincent de Paul to promote self-sufficiency (the second part of our mission statement) remains key. The SVP is often referred to as the ‘shadow welfare state’. We should not unintentionally or uncritically take on this role.

  1. CSO (2009), Survey of Income and Living Conditions 2008, Cork: CSO.
  2. Sweeney, J. (2009), ‘Combining retrenchment with reform in social policy’ 4 November, 2009. Available from:, (accessed 5 May 2010).