Cork delegates hear that ‘keeping up appearances’ hides the true reality of rural poverty

Delegates attending an all-island conference on combating rural poverty and social exclusion held in Drogheda today heard that the existence of the notion of a rural idyll acts to conceal poverty. The cost of living is greater in rural areas than in urban areas and poverty rates in rural areas are 18.7% compared to11.9% in urban areas (EU SILC data). Furthermore the concept of the charming rural lifestyle has led to the poor unwittingly conspiring with the more affluent to hide their poverty by denying its existence.

The conference was opened by Pat Carey T.D., Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs and was organised by Pobal and the Rural Development Council, as part of Social Inclusion Week and the Government’s programme of events to mark 2010, the European year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion. Ahead of today’s event the organisers commissioned a scoping paper to highlight the key challenges for policy makers and implementing bodies for future planning.

Speakers at the event outlined the nature, context and dynamics of poverty and social exclusion in rural communities, locating it within wider regional development issues and an all-island and EU context. Delegates heard that for those living in rural areas, statutory services are more difficult to access and public transport, which marginalised people rely on, is often minimal or non-existent. Employment opportunities are scarce and many people exist on a mixture of casual earnings and social transfers, never able to achieve an adequate, consistent income or to break the dependence on subsistence welfare payments.

Presenting the scoping paper at the event Dr. Kathy Walsh, Independent Research Consultant, said that, “One of the key challenges faced is the notion that we have about ‘rural’. What has been referred to as the rural idyll – the dewy-eyed pastoral image prevents a proper understanding of the complexities of rural communities and serves to deny the existence and distinctive nature of rural social exclusion and poverty. Dispelling this long-held inaccurate depiction would enable us to develop a shared vision for more equal and socially coherent rural communities.”

Dr. Walsh added, “Other challenges include the need for creative and sustainable approaches to unemployment and service provision in rural areas and greater integration of rural issues within and across national policies.”

Pat Carey TD, Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs talked about the progress of the Rural Development Programme (RDP) which has provided significant financial resources for rural communities since it started in 2009, “This programme has resulted in many innovative and sustainable development projects all over the country which are providing invaluable support to rural communities in difficult times. We recognise the importance of empowering communities to play a role in their own development which is why today’s event will help by providing a set of guiding principles and a strategic outline to inform future social inclusion strategies and actions, a legacy of the European Year.”

Minister Michelle Gildernew, MP MLA said: “A key goal for me when I became Minister was to tackle rural poverty and social exclusion issues and to this end I successfully lobbied the Executive to bring forward a funding package to address such issues. Already significant benefits are emerging from the subsequent interventions in: accessible transport, childcare provision, community development, benefit and services uptake and fuel poverty. I believe that as these interventions, and the ongoing support provided through the Rural Development Programme continue to roll out, our rural communities and individuals will experience real and meaningful improvements to their everyday lives.

“I am also bringing forward a Rural White Paper which will look at measures the Executive can take to address the needs in our rural communities and how, particularly in these difficult times, we can work collaboratively and effectively to ensure the sustainability of rural areas. In light of yesterday’s announcements by the British Government the implications of these decisions are likely to increase rural poverty. My officials continue to work with officials in Minister Carey’s Department to identify areas of co-operation that will be of mutual benefit to all rural communities. I look forward to the findings and emerging issues from this conference on how we work to combat Poverty and Social Exclusion on our island.”

Delegates took part in a series of discussion groups on key topics including: income adequacy, employment and economic development, regional planning, community development, integrating and reconciling communities, climate change, rural transport, primary health care and education. The conclusions of each discussion group will contribute to the development of a strategic framework for more effective social inclusion strategies.

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