Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics

What on Earth does “vulnerable” actually mean?

Posted by Jason O on Sep 10, 2012 in Irish Politics |

There is a tedious Groundhog Day style repetition about Irish politics (and at times on this blog about writing about it. But I’ll go on.) when we debate “social justice” and the need to protect “the vulnerable” from cuts in social spending. Let’s cut to the chase here: this is all about money, who gets it and who it is taken off. Vulnerability can be warded off by money, and so surely we can designate an income level upon which we decide marks where vulnerability begins and ends?

But there’s a problem, see. Logic (and maths) tells you that if you are going to shield the people below the threshold, then you must put extra burdens (through taxes normally) on those above the threshold, and that’s where our elected representatives actually refuse, short of waterboarding (now there’s an idea) to reveal what they think. Too low, say 20k, and you exclude people who need help. Too high, say 75k, and you start to sound ridiculous, although I suspect there are people in all three main parties who, having suckled off the public teat their whole lives, would struggle to scrape by on €75k. Let us not forget that the higher you go, the heavier the burden of taxation on those remaining above the threshold, and you’ll start to get a backlash there too.

Let us at least start by setting the bar at what vulnerable is.


Sep 10, 2012 at 8:00 am

Income should not be the primary consideration in determining vulnerability, and to use it as an organising principle only serves to muddy the debate and give people an excuse to deny help to those that really need it.

The ongoing contention that it’s borderline impossible to hierarchise vulnerability is one of the great fallacies of Irish politics. You don’t have to be a genius to identify those most in need; a 20 year old autistic person with an IQ of 50 clearly has less prospect of fending for themselves than an able bodied person of the same age, for example, and as such deserves a guarantee of help in a civilised society.

There is an underlying problem, which is that most Irish people regard themselves as vulnerable, even though many of us, based on income, ability, educational accomplishment etc. are patently not.

But we shouldn’t let the selfish stupidity of the self-regarding majority blind us to the genuine need of those forgotten individuals on the permanent downside of advantage. We must learn to differentiate between ‘wanting’ help and ‘needing’ it.

Sep 10, 2012 at 11:59 am

I think the vulnerable has a narrower meaning than simply income poor. It can, depending on context, include those with little or no capacity to change their income (severely disabled, some elderly, some children) and those who find it hard to cope in other ways, the mentally ill, people with very poor education. Often the vulnerable not help but not money.

James Lawless
Sep 10, 2012 at 3:15 pm

I often wonder the same thing. If everyone became “the most vulnerable” then who would be not vulnerable? There is an assumption often made that those working are not vulnerable and that those out of work are the most vulnerable. I would wager a small-time business owner put to the pin of their collar with debts, payroll and the cost of running a business (and no PRSI safety net) is more vulnerable than someone on the top rate of social welfare benefits. Yet this point is rarely made, at least not in the tabloid level discussions that tend to dominate. It would be presumed that the “merchant” in the former example is economically stronger and less vulnerable than the “unwaged” of the second example. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t but the debate rarely encompasses such considerations. Regarding your threshold limit for measuring “actual vulnerability” – perhaps the recently published metrics for poverty would be a help – the list of things people should be able to afford to do and if cannot come into poverty. That list might not be a bad start at any rate.

Sep 10, 2012 at 6:30 pm

I think that it is not

Sep 10, 2012 at 6:40 pm

I think that it’s not unreasonable to say that the “vulnerable” are people who have actual impediments that prevent them from look after themselves, very old, people with physical physical of mental disabilities, the very young or abandoned mothers. What kind of world do we live in that a 25 year old able bodied man or woman is vulnerable?

Jason O
Sep 12, 2012 at 6:48 pm

My point about the income level is that it would introduce more honesty into the debate. Let’s be honest, the recent protest outside the Dept of the Taoiseach was not about a lack of sympathy from the Govt. It was about cutting cash which provided services, services which wealthy people with disabilities could probably fund themselves.

Daniel Sullivan
Sep 12, 2012 at 8:16 pm

At this stage the most vulnerable must constitute all in excess of 70% of the population, all pensioners irrespective of age (some folks retire in their 50s) or physical condition, everyone under 18, all studying in full or even part time education, everyone in receipt of any type of state payment – be it the dole, or a enterprise grant, those who are too tall or too short, the unfit and the superfit and finally all who lack a Y Chromosome (whether they view themselves as amongst the most vulnerable or not, some advocacy group will claim them at some point).

I nailed my colours to some degree on this during the Seanad election, and I got my answer.


“There is an oft repeated mantra that a society should be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members. And that is right and proper; it doesn’t say much for the notion of living in a civilised society if it is one derived from the notion dog eat dog, of everyone for themselves.

Yet, in Ireland, over the course of the last few years, as the economic climate as worsened, there has been a rush by all sorts of groups to include themselves in the definition of Ireland’s most vulnerable, from millionaire pensioners who need medical cards to the children of the well off in 3rd level who simply can’t afford pay fees for their education to everyone who works in the public sector from the secretaries of departments and the heads of our semi-state companies to the CEOs of various state funded service delivery organisations such as REHAB on six figure salaries. I, for one, do not regard such groups as being amongst the most vulnerable in our society. And I’m not inclined to listen to the pleas of the well off who can afford professional lobby groups as they demand access to places in the lifeboats ahead of others who are genuinely more deserving.”

Sep 12, 2012 at 10:10 pm

” Let’s be honest, the recent protest outside the Dept of the Taoiseach was not about a lack of sympathy from the Govt”.

I think that’s a serious misreading of the situation. It’s easy to underestimate the psychological toll the disingenuous political bullying of the administrative class has on the irreversibly vulnerable. The coalition’s assertion that the disabled must, almost as a point of honour, be subjected to cuts whose ruinous human impact vastly exceeds their contribution to fiscal rectitude is a damaging insult, with worrying medium term implications.



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