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What's the view from Dublin?

By Brendan Keenan

Always expect the unexpected, the old advice runs. Hence the pleasure - the unexpected pleasure - in hearing Fergus Finlay, chief executive of the children's charity Barnardo's, arguing against an increase in child benefit in this month's Budget.

He said the annual €70m that a €5 increase will cost could do more good if spent on services for children. Here was an argument that was neither crude nor obvious - and that is unexpected.

For nigh-on 30 years, politics has revolved around tax cuts, social welfare increases and pay.

As luck would have it, Tanaiste Joan Burton, whose department is responsible for child benefit, was involved last month in something as complicated as anyone could wish for, and the stuff of which real politics ought to be made.

This is the issue of household joblessness, where Ireland has a remarkable, and at first sight remarkably depressing, record.

The rate of jobless households - where no one works - is well above the EU average. This was so even at the height of the bubble, when unemployment was 6%.

Less unexpected is the finding that adults in jobless households tend to have lower levels of education and are more likely to have never worked.

This means that the creation of highly skilled jobs is unlikely to benefit them directly.

Yet this rarely seems reflected in policy. Indeed, some of the policies being touted as a way of reducing poverty seem tailor-made to eliminate low-skill employment.

The analysis provides valuable insights into work and welfare.

Take rent supplement, so much in the headlines now. This benefit, inadequate though it is now held to be, is not available to people in full-time employment and can therefore be a significant barrier to taking-up employment.

It is gradually being replaced by a Housing Assistance Payment, the rules of which are less likely to act as a disincentive to work, but this is the kind of complication difficult to incorporate into debate and decisions on welfare policy.

This demonstrates once again how effective the Irish social welfare system is in alleviating poverty, despite the constant clamour which portrays it as a modern version of the workhouse.

So effective that, at the height of the boom, more than a third of the population was in receipt of weekly benefits, rising to a half from 2011-13.

In diplomatic language, the welfare system can erect substantial financial disincentive to taking up a job.

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