St Vincent de Paul has experienced a 40 percent rise in requests for food, furniture, clothing and counselling in the past few months.
The demand will only increase as Christmas draws near and the chill of recession bites deeper.
Along with those who are living below the poverty line there is now a ‘new poor’. These are the middle-income earners—single or with families—who cannot make ends meet. Some in corporate positions are now facing redundancy putting them under huge pressure.
For those who are struggling, Christmas usually means more financial pressure. They have just come out of a winter with high power bills and, together with the increased food costs of the current recession, surplus cash simply does not exist.
Christmas is an exciting time for families everywhere. Parents naturally want their children to have the best on Christmas Day. But they often get emotionally carried away and overspend because they don’t want their children to miss out. Consequently, the need to exercise caution is important if they are already struggling financially. To avoid financial crisis families have been known to turn to ‘loan sharks’ or money lenders (currently charging 8 percent a week) usually through ignorance and desperation. This leads them into further debt.
Families suffer too—some grandparents are forced by marriage or relationship breakup to take on the role of parent—one grandmother looks after seven grandchildren and receives no extra financial welfare or support.
One in five children is living in poverty, putting them at risk of educational failure, undermining job prospects and making them more likely to suffer sickness, abuse or premature death.
There is no easy answer. Tax cuts and increased benefits are not the answer for those on the poverty line. It’s important that long-term strategies be introduced based on educating people. For example, there are scant practical educational opportunities for those young people who do not adapt to the school system and who lack role models.
To counteract some of these problems, St Vincent de Paul centres run courses in mentoring young people and sole parents, and they advise on budgeting, gardening, shopping, cooking and preparing nutritious food.
It’s not just about a handout but about getting to the root of the problem and giving people a ‘hand-up’ so that they feel confident enough to make it on their own.
St Vincent de Paul staff and volunteers will this Christmas continue to help those in need and work with other agencies and groups to alleviate the burden of suffering.
Our volunteers continue to be of good cheer and take time to stop and chat to those who drop in to the centres, mindful that ‘loneliness’ is often the worst form of poverty.
Anne-Marie McCarten is national executive officer of St Vincent de Paul.