There’s a piece in the SBP at the weekend that manages to encapsulate perfectly a certain world view. Under the line ‘How long will the middle class suffer in silence?’ Martha Kearns states…
“I’m as mad as hell and I’m going to take this any more!” The iconic cry from Peter Finch’s character in the movie Network could be adapted to become a battle cry for Ireland’s increasingly distressed middle-income earner.
Spiralling ever downwards under a mountain of debt, the so-called ‘squeezed middle’ is finding it hard to breathe.
This demographic of mainly private-sector workers is rarely heard on Joe Duffy’s daily radio show or seen at the latest anti-austerity march. More prone to silence, they probably don’t feel they have as much of a right to moan with the rest of them.
I find this most interesting that she should push the public/private sector divide. Though she seems a bit hesitant about it. Clearly some are public sector. It would be useful to know how they sneak in under the wire, so to speak.
Of course it’s impossible to quite make this case without it seeming, well, a little disproportionate. Hence the following sentence or two:
They are still employed, still (just about) able to pay their bills and maybe, just maybe, able to save up to go on a break to the sun for a week or two in the summer. So it’s hard to feel too much sympathy towards them.
Well yes. It is a problem. Isn’t it? I mean, why the sense of grievance when those on, say, significantly lower incomes find it vastly more difficult to do any of those things?
It’s important to remember that, while they are not covered by the Croke Park agreement, they have already had pay cuts similar to, or higher than, those mooted under the public sector deal and would be ecstatic at the idea of a pay freeze. Also, Budget 2013, with its property tax, PRSI contribution increases, motor tax hikes, cuts to child benefit and maternity benefit tax, was not kind to these people.
Looking at their pay cheques now, they would probably laugh at the term ‘middle-income earner’.
Actually, that’s nonsense, and she should know it. Now, I’m not PS myself, labouring under a contract with the PS. But… fairs fair. There have been wages cuts for PS workers long before those ‘mooted under the PS deal’. And they existed before CPI. There’s already – and she should know this, she really should, a ‘pay freeze’. Then there’s the small matter that unlike the private sector where the breakdown was some cuts, mostly wage freezes and in other instances wage increases, in the public sector there were systemic across the board wage cuts. Oh yeah, and pension contribution increases, and all the various bits and pieces imposed by CPI as well. And of course ‘Budget 2013’ impacts in precisely the same way upon public sector workers as private sector workers.
Still, perhaps it’s best that she moves onto a new target.
…it was with a heavy heart that this section of society examined last week’s new government plan for troubled mortgages, as they knew that if anyone was to benefit from it, it wouldn’t be them.
The Central Bank didn’t mess around: it warned that repossessions were on the cards and families would be losing their homes; even those engaging with lenders could lose their homes.
Of course, this is distressing news for the people who are unable to pay their mortgages. The latest figures show that around 144,000 homes are in arrears, with those already structured and buy-to-lets bringing it up to 180,000.
Now some would suggests that for all the obvious caveats that 180,000 are in a pretty dismal place and many, perhaps most, through no fault of their own but due to the excesses of a market which was cheered by political, media and economic commentators as being at the exemplar of the success of this state.
However, while it is distressing, they are being offered a way out. Long-term deals could result in them downsizing to a more affordable home or continuing in their current homes with lower levels of debt, if they get some sort of write-down.
But what about the 420,000 mortgages that continue to be paid? For sure, some of those people have no problems meeting their debts, but there is nothing in the plan for those who are struggling to pay their mortgages but continue doing so.
These are the people who never complain or take to the streets. They’re made to feel lucky – guilty even – that they still have a home, a job and some sort of lifestyle.
Actually that raises the thought that isn’t that precisely what PS workers are often made to feel. indeed looking back a few sentences in her own story, isn’t that what she is sort of implying?
Anyhow, back to the rationale as to why the middle class are different…
It doesn’t matter that they have worked for 15 to 20 years to get to their position in their careers only to be back earning wages they were taking home ten years ago – only now they also have a negative equity mortgage and a family to support.
But [Michael Noonan] doesn’t seem to realise that the people who are not in “mortgage distress” but are in other sorts of financial distress (as a knock-on from ensuring that the mortgage is the first bill to be paid) are also no longer participating in the economy.
They are no longer buying their lunch or morning coffee, they are cancelling their health insurance and cable television subscriptions. They are getting rid of their second cars, cutting their trips to the pub and no longer paying a babysitter so that they can have a night out at the cinema.
They are scrutinising every pay cheque to make sure they have enough money in the bank to cover the mortgage and crippling creche fees, maybe even putting one or two payments on the credit card.
In a way this is amazing, if the writer is being entirely sincere. But the problem is that in a society where others are doing so much worse and that she is unwilling to expend any time on building some degree of solidarity across sectors and classes that it’s impossible to take this at all seriously.
Again, she sort of kind of sees the contradictions in her stance:
Of course, it’s hard to feel sorry for these people in a world where others are on the breadline. That’s why you won’t hear them on the radio or see them on the streets.
But you don’t have to be on the breadline or in mortgage arrears to be struggling. This group may be silent, but the evidence of their distress can be seen everywhere – in the boarded-up shops they once supported, the empty pubs they once frequented and the cinemas they no longer go to.
There’s an element of truth there, that the lack of disposable income is crushing jobs, gutting the economy. But this isn’t just about the middle class, and that class – however nebulously one can define it (and her own caveat as regards the PS early on in the piece is telling) isn’t alone in feeling the pinch and worse. Indeed it’s precisely because of the lack of interest, and yes – solidarity – expressed that the position of this supposed middle class is being laid bare as being vastly more contingent than its cheerleaders might like. And needless to say there’s no reflection on the thoughts that firstly for many in the working class the things she takes for granted simply aren’t a feature in good or bad times or that in the latter the situation worsens.
Of course this is part of a much larger process, a transfer of wealth that it would appear is quite deliberate, a shift towards making near universal the instability, the poor provision whether social or otherwise, that is a facet of everyday life for many working class people whether employed or unemployed. And yet the immediate response, the instinctive one, at least as exemplified in this piece is to go looking for people to blame. Everyone but themselves.
Which brings to mind Ben Franklin’s point that “We must hang together, gentlemen…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.”
Social solidarity. Once gone not easy to get back.