The Care-Less State of Ireland: Why we need to challenge the Charity model of Social Justice

Kathleen Lynch  |  Kathleen Lynch is Professor of Equality Studies at the School of Social Justice, University College Dublin


Discussions about injustice in Ireland take place at different levels; sometimes they take place at the micro or local level of the individual, sometimes at the mezzo-level of the organisation and sometimes at the macro level of the state and social institutions of the state. Today I am going to talk about the state, its underlying conceptualisations of social justice, and how these impact on how we address inequality. In particular, I want to address the role of ideas, the role that our concepts and frameworks (often unspoken) play in framing our responses to injustice.

The reason our ideological frameworks (or what some call models or paradigms) matter is because they enable us to see the world and our place in it in very particular ways. There is no view from nowhere: every concept or idea of justice and equality is grounded in a set of beliefs and assumptions as to how the world works, what matters and does not matter.

The other reason that ideas matter is because the mind is a site of a political struggle: there are many groups in society that try to exercise control over consciousness, be it the media, religious organisations, schools, or families and cultural groups. What we see on television (including its advertisements), read on social media, or hear in church frames how we interpret equality issues; it helps determine what we do, what we see and cannot see, what we know and what we are not allowed to know.

One can see it at the moment; we are in a new phase of global capitalism where global financial capital is especially powerful not only in terms of what it owns and controls but how it exercises influence over ideological institutions such as universities and media. You don’t have to be a Marxist to say that as it is a sociological fact. Global capital is in power and I think we have unique problems in Ireland in actually challenging that, not least because one is demonised (as a crank, a begrudger, the hard left etc. for saying so). One of the reasons we do not name the world as it is sociologically and politically is because we lack the language and concepts to do so; there is no critical social scientific education in our schools or indeed in most of our higher educational institutions. We are educationally and conceptually bankrupt in critical analytical terms.



We now have a society in Ireland where young people have been treated unbelievably unjustly, in recent years. The Eurostat Dashboard of EU Youth Indicators shows that Ireland has the largest number of young people under 18 in the EU15 who are at a high risk of poverty; it also has the 4th highest percentage in the EU (18.4%), of young people aged 15 to 24 years not in education, employment or training. Yet funding for youth work services supported by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, have been cut by almost 30% over the last five years from €73.1m to €51.4m.1 Cuts to unemployment assistance payments have also been disproportionately targeted at young people: payments for 22- to 24- year-old jobseekers fell from €144 to €100 per week, while 25- year-olds’ payments were reduced to €144 from €188 per week. There has also been a substantial rise in student poverty: while 22.7% of students were at risk of poverty in 2010 almost one third, 31.4% were at risk of poverty in 2011.2

Austerity has depleted the solidarity and care systems of the Irish state through reducing welfare and family supports for those who are young, those who are primary carers, including mothers and single parents, those in need of care, including children, and those disproportionately dependent on public services, including disabled persons, those who are ill, the vulnerable elderly, and ethnic minorities, including Travellers. Austerity also contributed to enforced emigration, especially among young people (CSO, 2012b, Glynn et al., 2013) with attendant social and emotional costs to families and local communities, especially in rural areas.

And many young people who are living in Ireland are in precarious employment, often with zero hours or low hours contracts, moving from project to project (even those who are reasonably well paid) but often without pensions or any form of security. They live a precarious existence, not only economically but also socially and emotionally: they cannot plan their future, including where they will live or whether or not they will have children; economic precariousness produces social and emotional precariousness (Standing, 2011). So to say that Ireland is engaged in inter-generational injustice is almost an understatement. The attitude in Ireland is…‘emigrate!’ And that is an attitude that has prevailed for a long time in terms of caring for our young people. You are told, if you’re well-qualified, ‘didn’t we educate you’. I want to challenge the thinking that leads to that mentality.


Carelessness and Class

Ireland has always been a careless state, and I use the word ‘careless’ deliberately. It has never had a strong welfare state by European welfare standards. It has relied heavily on voluntary bodies (most religious) but all charitable in character to provide many of the most basic services. Moreover, the problem of economic inequality is presented as if it were a simple matter of redistribution of money and wealth, through voluntary contributions as much as through taxation. It is known that wealth is deeply unequally divided (not just in Ireland but globally) but the way to address this has as much been seen as a matter or charitable giving rather than mandatory taxation. Irish people boast of their generosity to the ‘third world’ conveniently ignoring the dangerous dependency that charity brings, and ignoring many inequalities on their own door step.

The state harm (Dorling et al., 2008) that ensues from allowing economic and other inequalities to persist, impacts on you inside your body, and on the way you feel about yourself and your relationships; it frames your thinking about what is possible and impossible in your life. It makes you feel small or it makes you hold your head high; inequality literally gets under your skin in health terms (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009). As Bourdieu (1984) noted, injustices lead to dispositions and mindsets of inferiority and superiority; they create feeling of moral worthlessness; they have an emotional and psychological impact as well as a material one. So what has our response been to injustice? We have projects; youth projects, community projects most of which have insecure funding. I don’t mean to be rude, but you don’t need to have youth projects in Foxrock or in Sandymount in Dublin. Let’s be honest, community and youth projects are for working class people. These are the doxa (i.e. hidden and unspoken assumptions) of the state’s trade in managing injustice; there are piecemeal efforts (projects, pilot actions, community initiatives) to contain the worse forms of social disruption caused by injustices; the goal is to contain the inequality and manage it, not to eliminate it. Community interventions, when allowed, are contingent on conformity and are increasingly regulated and controlled by middle class professionals in state agencies. And to tell the truth on this is to be labelled as ‘being negative’. Likewise with critiques of education: yes, there are wonderful features to our education system but we also have a deeply social-class segregated education system especially in the larger urban areas. Even higher education is class segregated with more middle class people attending universities, and more upper middle and upper class people taking a high proportion of places in the most prestigious and sought after degree programmes. It is time for reflexivity: how many middle class professional people have sent their own children to socially selective and/or fee-paying schools while declaring a concern for social injustice?

Religious segregated education is still dominant in Ireland. Identity-segregated education is now beginning to change, but we now have racially-segregated housing because of the way we organise housing. We don’t talk about producing homes, we talk about producing property for people to buy and sell. We have a segregated society…and we exacerbate class and race differences in the way we organise housing and education. Real integration is strongly opposed by very ‘respectable’ people, professionals, and powerful interest groups although done under a guise that occludes the class project at stake. The recent demands being made by parents who attended a fee-paying (or other socially selective) school and believe they have a right to send their children to these same schools is indicative of that mentality.


The Market

As Denis O’Sullivan has said, Ireland has moved from theocracy to mercantilism (O’Sullivan, 2005). He claims we had a theocratic state dominated very much on religious ideology and that is true. However, the concept of justice that underpinned that theocratic tradition has not gone away; it is a charity view of justice. We now have a mercantilist mentality married to a charitable one where those with privileges believe they have a natural entitlement to these and those who are poor are blamed for their ‘lack of success’. Taxes to redistribute wealth and provide public services are construed as an imposition on the morally upright and self-righteous citizenry; charity is defined as an acceptable way to provide public and social housing (via housing associations) while there is an increasing call for philanthropy (corporate charity) to become more engaged in funding ‘disadvantaged’ students in higher education and other services. The charity narrative is also evident, in a reverse sense, in the emergence of the language of the ‘deserving poor’ the so-called ‘squeezed middle class’. The public impression is created that the most vulnerable are the middle class, not those who are without employment or those on low pay but in employment.

Market values have become encoded in how we speak; and we have not even noticed that we are doing ‘market speak’. For example, the Department of Education has a website where it refers to learners as ‘customers.’3 A customer is somebody who is in a market relationship with another entity; you cannot be a customer if you have rights. In the case of education, you have a human right to education, a right that can be vindicated in law. You are not a customer to your own rights. Yet we have changed the nomenclature (the names) that we use. And in so doing, we have changed the citizen’s relationship to the state. The customer language is everywhere: we have moved from having unemployment assistance/benefit to having job-seekers allowance. The latter term means you cannot be unemployed unless you’re looking for job, what an absurd idea! Many people are formally unemployed but very busy, not least doing caring work or doing voluntary work. The term ‘job seeker’ implies that you must be always seeking paid employment that you are of no value to society unless you are employed. Another example of market speak is how the former term ‘Probation and Welfare Service’ has changed. Welfare doesn’t exist now; it is The Probation Service ( because ‘care’ doesn’t matter now. For those who are at the edge of society, it is all about policing and monitoring them.

But who protested when this happened? Where was our dissent? Where were the dissenters when this new market language became encoded, as part of public policy? Where were the intellectuals and the artists? I think we failed to name it and shame it when it first started. But it is never too late to do it and we can do it now.

There are many examples of the move to the market; it is especially evident in the way we have attacked anything that is a public good. Neo-liberal capitalism wants a small cheap state which means a state where there will be little or no tax on capital (Harvey, 2007). We have big multinationals that spend their time avoiding even the 12.5% tax they are actually supposed to pay. If you don’t redistribute wealth from the corporations and from very wealthy people, someone else has to pay, and that means those who own fewer resources. Without redistribution (taxation), we won’t have money for local services. It is very elementary; we will not have money to prevent people from emigrating…and provide them with decent jobs. The cuts in community groups in several budgets since the McCarthy report4 is an example of how the state actually put in place a plan to dismantle many vital community services that the poorest and most vulnerable needed.

It also had a secondary goal to eliminate the dissenting voices that came from working class community groups; they were becoming too vociferous. They were accused of being too ‘political which is a nice euphemism for saying. ‘They are not presenting the party political view that we want’, so we will not fund them anymore. They are not compliant enough.

And part of the neoliberal (new liberal) project it to hold individual’s responsible for their failure and to claim every success as your own. So the culture of blaming the unemployed for being too lazy to work sits alongside the culture of L’Oréal; buy it because ‘you are worth it’. It is your own fault if you cannot get a job; it’s your own responsibility. Is it your fault, when there aren’t any jobs? Claims of responsibility ring hollow to those who live hand-to-mouth, and/or know they are the unwanted in the labour market. If you live in the average suburban area, have you the means to create employment of your own? If you do not have the resources, training, supports or capacity, how are you supposed to do it?

Who has gained most in this neoliberal era? There is a move to zero-contract hours and precarious working (Standing, 2011). Casualising means peripheralising people as they cannot plan their lives beyond the next part-time job, part-time hours, project or deadlines. And this is impacting especially on young people. We need to talk about young people in big political terms to mobilise a resistance to intergenerational injustice. You will see in the attached graph (Figure 1); in the year 2010/11…in the middle of the financial crisis, the poorest 10% of the Irish population lost 26% of their income…but the richest 10% gained 8.2%. The Central Statistics Office has not produced statistics of this nature since then, but I have a strong feeling this pattern has continued.

Another set of graphs published (Collins, 2014) shows that Income tax in the Republic of Ireland is progressive (Figure 2); the poorest 10% of people pay very little, mostly because they are on social welfare and have no means to pay, and the richest 10% pay approximately 22%. But the next graph (Figure 3) shows where real injustice lies in Ireland which is rarely addressed and that is in indirect taxes. The lowest 10% spend approximately 27% of their income on indirect taxes, tax on cigarettes, tax on alcohol, tax on ESB bills, tax on gas bills, tax on television, tax on water etc. So the lowest 10% are actually paying…a huge proportion of their income on taxation. People say ‘the taxpayers don’t want to fund these ‘spongers’’, but the taxpayers include the people who have no earned income and people who are on very low income. This is a political issue and a huge issue of injustice in this country. The final graph (Figure 4) shows the distribution between the very rich who pay 29.4% and those with the lowest income who pay 26.7% in taxation is minimal. Cumulatively the very well off and the poorest, pay almost equal amounts of their income on taxation. This is contrary to what a lot of people would like to hear but it shows how we produce myths about who lives of whom in society, who is paying tax and who is not. We are all tax payers; in tax terms the very poor people are taxed highly through indirect taxation relative to their low incomes.



When you create a huge inequality in society, you create fear and competition. What we see happening in Ireland quite frequently is the use of fear to reinforce social divisions and make those who are relatively well off fear those who are less well off. Fear is a major emotion used in the politics of neo-liberalism; media, politicians and other powerful interests produce fear on a daily basis, the fear of being made vulnerable in the race to protect privilege. If you want to understand inequality, you cannot just focus on those with the lowest incomes, you need to examine how those who are relatively privileged work to retain their own position. The fear-of-losing-privilege that is produced drives those who are privileged to protect their interests. This move is evident in the rise in demand for fee-paying and other socially selective schools, the growing number of walled elite housing estates, and the growth in private hospitals and nursing homes. The culture of fear is also evident in the rise in private security, alarms, insurance etc. Fear is also promoted of course by the insurance industry make profits by selling risk as something that much be avoided and by selling fear with it. They make a living out of telling people they are going to be robbed or impoverished unless they buy a risk- avoidance product. When you create fear, you create anxiety, and an industry around it.

But you also create an awful lot of aggression and hostility when you produce fear; you break up trust as people begin to look inwards to their own family or community to protect them. And you produce racism because you make the stranger visible in a fear-led world; the visibilised stranger, the ‘Other’, the outsider can be held responsible for the threat to your security even if she or he is not. They can become a target for your fear and your anger.


Intellectual Spaces, Ethics and Charity

Ethical debates in Ireland have been dominated by religious bodies. Religious texts and discourses have monopolised moral spaces; in the Catholic tradition there has been a strong focus historically on the ethics of sex and sexuality, with little understanding of the social scientific evidence on issues of gender and sexuality. While there has been some focus on economic injustices, this has not been the core narrative. Moreover, debates about ethical issues have often been deeply anti-intellectual…and profoundly authoritarian. So any secular forms of morality and social reforms that may emerge from socialism and feminism, and/or from humanism, have been demonised. What we have created is this moral and ethical void where people are not enabled to develop a moral imagination in political terms outside of religion. So there is a great irony in what has happened in Ireland. We have had religious control of moral spaces and it has created a very immoral society in how we treat the most vulnerable including our children. We know from a recent UNICEF report Ireland is fourth from the bottom…out of 41 countries in terms of how we helped or looked after children during the recession (Figure 5). Neo-liberalism has filled the empty space and given us market ethics governed by the values of consumption, competition and general indifference to those who lack the capacity to engage with the market

Charity is what most people think about when they think about responding to injustice in Ireland: ‘Ah sure, you know, we’ll give them a few Euros, the poor disadvantaged people’. We’ll put money in the box at Christmas’ or better still, ‘we’ll go and become professionals and we’ll work with them when they’re abandoned, and we’ll earn good salaries and they’ll stay where they are. What I say here is a sociological fact and I think it does underpin Ireland’s response to injustice both within charities themselves and in the mind-set of the public service (of which I am a member) and in other services. So what’s wrong with the charity model? Charity is voluntary, you can give it or take it away; it’s a gift of those who decide to give it on their own terms and they can decide not to give it. Charity is not collectively binding on those who give, and those who receive it have no rights to what they receive. For example, we don’t have a proper fully funded and resourced Arts programme, for young people. Instrumental music education in this country is almost entirely privatised: 50% of the School Leaving Certificate exam in Music is for performance. But you cannot do well unless you can afford to pay for private lessons. What an absurdity about the arts and how hypocritical; because people make a money in the private sector doing private tuition, there is little concern for those who cannot afford to pay. As Dorothy Conaghan (musician and UCD graduate student in Equality Studies has observed about music): those who can pay can play.

This is why we need to look at ourselves. Charity is driven often by the desire for moral recognition. It is driven by the needs of those who give, and not by the recognition of the rights of those who receive. It services the guilt of the better off. When people give a donation at Christmas or maybe you do it monthly, if you’re well off, it doesn’t seriously challenge the generative causes of injustice at the level of structures. (Unless of course it is given to a body challenging structural injustices).

I would argue that this whole model, the charity way of thinking actually exacerbates injustice. It is dangerous as it gives the impression that something is being done and then the state is absolved from responsibility. Moreover, charity, by nature, is uncoordinated. You go into one town in Ireland, and they have a great community centre, you go the village next door, and they have absolutely nothing, Why? because it depends on voluntarism or charity. The other issue is that it gives the impression that those who offer charity by doing good deeds, whether that’s done structurally or individually, are somehow morally superior to the people who are receiving their gift. They appear as if they were more virtuous and this is demeaning for those who are in receipt of the charitable service. Who wants to be in receipt of somebody else’s charity on a long term basis? And charity has to be sought, it isn’t a right. Those who are seeking it are always subject to scrutiny. Anyone who knows, or who has tried to get social welfare or social/ public housing knows that this is often the ethos in State services too. You are reminded you are a supplicant (in the welfare office for example) when you go to look for your allowances. You are treated with suspicion as if you are getting as a favour, a gift.

The charity model of social justice is deep rooted in Ireland. It is based on the institutionalisation of unequal relationships; it assumes that inequalities will continue; otherwise there would be no need for voluntary contributions or charitable donations. Within this framework, it is assumed that the giver is good and virtuous and the receiver is lacking, someone in need. Even when relationships are not strictly based on charity, as is the case in public services such as welfare, public/social housing or public health, a charity mentality often prevails and those who receive the service as assumed to be given something for nothing. The charity mentality disregards the fact that the poor contribute as much to society, in proportionate terms relative to their incomes, as those who are much better off. A charity model of justice is no substitute for substantive equality of condition; in many ways it exacerbates inequality by creating an illusion that action has been taken.

The price of economic and social inequality is very high for those who are poor but also for the wider society. As I said above it increases polarisation, breaks down trust and exacerbates racism and violence. More equal countries enable people to participate more fully in all aspects of society; they are more stable and cohesive socially and politically.

* This is an edited transcript of a presentation from ‘Territory, Encounter & Negotiation’ NCAD, 5th Nov ’14. NCAD on the occasion of the launch of Fiona Whelan’s book ‘TEN’. The audio is available online on book-launch/



1 Public Expenditure Report 2013, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, December 2012

silc/2011/silc_2011.pdf accessed March 12th 2015


4 The Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes (also known as An Bord Snip Nua) was an advisory committee established by the Irish government in 2008 to recommend cuts in public spending. It was chaired by economist Colm McCarthy. It published two volumes of findings, commonly known as the McCarthy report, on 16 July 2009.



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