The analysis of the results of the 2001 living in Ireland survey, recently published by the ESRI, provides us with a valuable source of information on poverty trends.
The analysis indicates that the at risk of poverty rate, or the number of people with an income below 60% of equalised median income, has increased overall from 19.8% in 1998 to 21.9% in 2001. It also indicates that the risk of falling below that income threshold has increased appreciably for people who are ill or disabled, for the elderly and for people on home duties.
A number of factors have contributed to it. During periods of high economic growth increases in household income can outstrip substantial increases in the incomes of households with relatively low earnings or on social welfare. This is precisely what happened in Ireland in recent years. There were particular circumstances in the period from the mid-1990s when a combination of increased female participation in the workforce, reduced unemployment generally, tax reform and, crucially, high earnings growth caused a large increase in household income. Despite virtually unprecedented improvements in employment and social provision across the board in the period household incomes were substantially higher than increases in individual earnings and social welfare incomes.
Income is just one indicator of poverty. Other factors, not least employment rates and levels of home ownership, all of which are positive for Ireland, also have a major bearing on a person's standard of living.
The analysis of the poverty indicator provides us with valuable information on the proportion of our population at risk. However, it is necessary to define the numbers that are experiencing poverty in terms of being consistently deprived of goods and services regarded as essential for living in Ireland today. The ESRI report also analysed the trends in consistent poverty that capture the position of those who are on low incomes and experiencing enforced basic deprivation.
The success of Government policies in tackling consistent poverty is reflected in the sharp decreases observed by the indicator in recent years — down from 15% in 1994 to 5.2% in 2001. We have set a target in the national anti-poverty strategy of reducing consistent poverty to below 2% by 2007 and ideally eliminating it altogether.
My Department has commissioned separate research from the ESRI that is near completion. I want to develop a greater level of understanding of the various causal factors that influence the levels of relative income poverty here as compared with other member states.