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Boston Globe, July 19, 2004

UN calls a wealthier Ireland impoverished and unequal

By Shawn Pogatchnik, Associated Press

DUBLIN -- From millionaire-row mansions to heroin-hit welfare projects, Ireland has become one of the most prosperous but unequal societies on earth, the United Nations suggested last week.

The annual UN Human Development Report for the first time placed Ireland among the top 10 developed nations, moving it to the number 10 spot from 12 last year in a list based on residents' average income, educational level, and life expectancy.

But a parallel finding, measuring the level of poverty in the world's 17 most highly developed nations, placed Ireland second from the bottom, just above its primary economic role model, the United States.

''Ireland has a long way to go before it's a place where everybody is respected and has enough to live life with dignity," said the Rev. Sean Healy, who directs the justice commission of the Conference of Religious of Ireland, an association of 12,000 Catholic priests and nuns.

The UN Poverty Index, part of the development report released Thursday, has consistently rated Ireland as having the highest percentage of poor people in Western Europe, about 15.3 percent of the country's 3.9 million residents. The United States was listed at 15.8 percent. The report was based on 2002 data.

The Irish government, which takes pride in Ireland's Europe-leading rate of economic growth over the past decade, accused the UN of relying on outdated statistics and on measuring ''relative," rather than ''absolute," poverty. Relative poverty defines poverty in relation to the average wage, no matter how high; absolute poverty uses more fixed tests for determining poverty, such as the ability to pay for home heat and to eat a balanced diet.

The Irish Times rejected the government line in its lead editorial Friday. ''It is not good enough to reject these findings by quoting different indices of poverty," the newspaper said. ''Ireland is an unequal society in which many remain socially excluded."

Dan McLaughlin, chief economist at the Bank of Ireland, said he agrees with the government's view that real poverty in Ireland today is at a historic low of about 5 percent. ''They say 'poverty' when they mean relative incomes, and of course, the relative gap between the richest and poorest is growing," he said. ''But by their logic, in a land where the average wage-earner is a millionaire, then somebody on $500,000 a year would supposedly be poor."

Ireland had a gross domestic product per capita of $36,360 per year, which indicates the average annual income, according to the report.

Healy said most people living under the poverty line in Ireland today were in households led by people who are elderly, disabled, too ill to work, or doing volunteer work. Such households, representing more than 700,000 people, rely on benefits that have not kept pace with the economy, he said. The average single person's welfare check is $168 weekly; the poverty line is $225 a week.

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