|The lines at social welfare offices throughout Dublin continue to grow|
Here we are back again after our summer break, a few weeks in which the world economy has teetered on the brink and poor little Ireland's vulnerability has been cruelly exposed.
To make us feel even more depressed it's been raining -- we've had the wettest summer in years; in Kerry it was the wettest summer since records began in 1886!
Plus it's been colder than normal over the past month. Where's all that global warming when you need it?
There was some good news at the start of summer. The International Monetary Fund gave us a positive quarterly report and said we were on target in the four year plan to balance the budget.
Then the economic turmoil in Greece and elsewhere in Europe led to a cut in the interest rate member states like us have to pay on our bailout money from the EU. That is going to save us hundreds of millions a year.
So that was positive. For a week or two things began to look even mildly hopeful. There were headlines in the papers saying that we were over the crisis and back on track.
But then the EU started to wobble again under the debt mountain of the weaker countries, like us. Fears of default and the havoc this could create caused markets in Europe and in the U.S. to plunge. And our prospects -- which are so dependent on our export markets -- went back to being gloomy again.
All of this has been happening while the Irish government has been on holiday. And I can tell you that our leaders are taking a much longer holiday than the short break President Obama is on right now.
I see the president is being criticized for daring to go on vacation while so many Americans are out of work. Well, hello?
Back here we have an unemployment rate which is 50% higher than in the U.S. and you don't hear us complaining about Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny playing golf, do you? We're much too polite for that kind of rudeness.
Like in America, the big issue here behind everything else in the headlines -- the deficit, the economy, the banks, the global markets, etc. -- is jobs. Those of us in jobs tend to forget this but that's what it's all about -- jobs, jobs, jobs. At around 460,000 unemployed here right now, we are at a record high for the number of people out of work.
Paying welfare to these people is a huge burden on our budget, and over the summer that has led to an interesting debate here.
Yes we are at a record high for unemployment. Yes a lot of these are people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own as companies contract in the global slowdown.
But close to half of all the people who are out of work here now are long-term unemployed. They have been out of work for at least a year, some of them for several years, and a significant number for so long that they were out of work even at the height of the boom.
We definitely have a problem in this area. For a significant number of the unemployed here, the problem is not just that it's hard to find a job, it's that they don't want a job anyway, unless it's a job that's easy, pays well and suits what they like to do.
Apart from the long-term unemployed, there are also question marks over some of those who may have lost their jobs in the last year or so and say they want to get another job.
How flexible are all they? How willing are they to take whatever jobs are available to get back on the ladder again? How willing are they to move?
Are they being too picky, unwilling to compromise and start over at a lower level, unwilling to retrain and change career paths? Is it possible that a lot of people here are actually work shy?
Certainly the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) seems to think so. It pointed out recently that Ireland, which now has the third highest unemployment level among all the OECD countries, is one of the few countries that do not reduce unemployment benefits over time to encourage people to go back to work.
Not only that, but the level of unemployment benefit here is one of the highest in the OECD. In these politically correct times it's now called jobseeker's allowance, and it's currently €
188 a week (which at the moment is equivalent to $263 a week).
A lot of people who are getting unemployment benefits automatically qualify for things like rent assistance, which can be around €
1,000 a month for a family home in Dublin, plus they get other benefits like free health care, a fuel allowance and clothing and shoes allowance for school kids. And of course, like everyone else, they get children's allowances, which for someone with three kids is €
447 a month.
When you put these together, the recent OECD report on Ireland said, it acts as a disincentive to work. The fact is that for many it may not make sense to take a low paid job if it means they lose out on some or all of their benefits.
Like most OECD reports, this was largely ignored here. It got the usual few paragraphs in the papers and that was it.
But then a couple of weeks back the Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton, really got the debate going on whether the recent boom has made the Irish work shy and picky about jobs. She made some comments suggesting that welfare had become a "lifestyle choice" for some people, even some school leavers, and she said that something had to be done about this.
Burton said that a major change in the system was being implemented, and that those who refuse to take up a job or go on a retraining course would see their payments cut by up to €
44 a week.
This was a real shock, for two reasons. Firstly, Burton is the minister with direct responsibility for this area of government spending, so what she thinks matters. Secondly, she is a Labor Party minister who would traditionally be expected to protect welfare benefits, and if she is thinking like this then it must mean there are changes on the way.
It's a complex problem, of course. But there is no doubt that action is required, as anyone in business here will tell you.
American tourists sometimes wonder why Irish hotels and restaurants are staffed mainly by East Europeans. One hotelier here, who has Poles, Lithuanians and other East Europeans on his staff, explained that it's because they are not only willing to work for the minimum wage but eager to do so.
They turn up on time, showered, with neat hair, in perfectly clean uniforms and they have a smile on their faces and they are enthusiastic about doing a good job.
In contrast, he says, too many of the Irish he has employed in the past arrived late, unwashed, sometimes hungover, in grubby, wrinkly uniforms, and they had a casual attitude to the job as though they were resentful about having to work at all. They were less efficient and not as thorough or precise as the East Europeans.
It's the same in what's left of the clothing industry here. One leading designer here has been full of praise for her Latvian machinists who pride themselves on the perfection of their work and on getting a job finished on time.
And it's the same story in other parts of the economy here, particularly in jobs that are at or close to the minimum wage, or where flexibility in working hours is required. Is it a coincidence that almost all Ryanair flights out of Ireland these days appear to have Eastern European cabin crew?
Talk to ordinary householders here who get small jobs done -- gardening, plumbing, electrics, carpentry -- and you find them marveling at their brilliant Polish plumber or the Lithuanian guys who fixed their leaking roof or built a kitchen extension on time and for half what an Irish crew wanted to charge.
Somewhere along the line -- probably during the boom -- we Irish appear to have lost that hunger for work and that pride in doing a really good job. In a curious contradiction, the kind of ordinary jobs our emigrants are happy to do abroad seem to be beneath those at home in Ireland.
The boom raised our expectations and now that the recession is here that has made us resentful and awkward. We've discovered that this sense of entitlement does not automatically translate into the kind of easy, high paid jobs we wanted, and we don't like that new reality.
So a lot of us here have opted for welfare as the easy option. That was never a good thing, but it was manageable when the economy was booming and the state was flush with money to pay benefits. Now it's a different story.