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Talking about pensioners… October 22, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Economy, The Left.

Given the protest this lunchtime it’s worth looking at one central point. Time and again I hear discussions from the right about ‘pensioners’. It tends to be a variant of the old outsider/insider line, wherein one group or another is for various reasons gifted with special treatment at the expense of all others. The solution is almost invariably to drag provision, services, etc downwards rather than upwards.

I’ve mentioned before how I like Michael White’s analyses in the Guardian. White’s an interesting character, left wing in a mainstream British LP inclined way, but fairly traditional in certain regards – for example, he apparently doesn’t hold with same-sex marriage but supports civil partnerships. Obviously I would disagree, but on most matters political his judgement is worth considering. And he makes a point in relation to the response to the Alan Milburn report on social mobility that is so central to any debates and discussions on issues like pensions that while obvious clearly needs to be stated and restated until it hits home. He writes:

Prince Charles has just given a speech in defence of embattled pensioners, minutes after Alan Milburn, the former Labour minister turned coalition social mobility champion, said lucky old folk had suffered least from the burdens of recession. Can they both be right? They can.

Because, as he notes:

Milburn is right to say that the jobless young and the working poor – the people “who do all the right things, stand on their own feet, strivers, not skivers” – are most hard-hit by stagnant or falling wages and rising costs.

But he also notes that:

Pensioners, so the argument runs (it’s backed by the prestigious Institute for Fiscal Studies), have seen their state pensions relatively well-protected and all their other paybacks – winter fuel allowance, free TV licence, the bus pass etc – left intact. But the awkward fact is that in the unequal Britain Lady Thatcher strived to create, the poverty gap within the pensionable age group is as big as it is on other age groups. Some pensioners are very badly off, but not all.

This last is absolutely essential to underscore. Some pensioners do well, many/most do not.

But it is extremely convenient for the argument on this to be determined by a right where such nuance is ignored because at this point it is expedient politically, in regards to fund raising by governments to beat pensions as a group back. We see elements of that discussion here already, indeed it has been a part of the discourse for years now, in part due to the supposed unwillingness of the FF/GP government to ‘face up’ to pensioners in the past.

I don’t, as it happens, agree with White’s analysis in terms of a ‘solution’. He argues for cut offs, which presumably could only function in the context of means testing. I don’t think that’s good for a number of reasons, not least the concept of universality. But I also think on the grounds of practicality it’s not that useful. We have a fully functioning tax net that can easily be applied to encompass pensioners where they are not already enmeshed within it. It is universal and taxation can be used to ameliorate any inequities. Use it as such and then it’s possible to offer a wide range of provisions and services and ensure that taxation claws back what can be clawed back.


1. Ian - October 22, 2013

Good post. However, do pensioners over 70 with a weekly income of over €500 deserve a medical card? That threshold is almost twice the weekly state pension. Under 65s need an income of less than €165 in order to qualify for a medical card. It’s clear the over 70’s medical card thresholds are very much an outlier.


WorldbyStorm - October 22, 2013

Tax them for the privilege I figure.


2. hardcorefornerds - October 22, 2013

This annoyed me when the Irish Times reported on CSO figures from the Survey on Income and Living Conditions, over-65s subsection, a while back – totally focused on ‘generational’ issues even though the CSO report looked only within the group and had quite a lot of interesting, and sometimes conflicting, detail about income disparities, completely unreported on. As a general rule, when the media or politicians focus on one group defined by age, class/income differences within that group are ignored because the ‘debate’ just can’t handle that kind of complexity (even look at the discussion about the under-26 unemployed, as if they’re necessarily a socially homogenuous group – although I saw one figuring showing that they, unsurprisingly, disproportionately come from low-income families, it wasn’t actually a massive disproportion – 60% from the lowest 40% or something like that)


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