There has been a considerable fuss over a suggestion for a modest scaling-back of the benefits to the retired. It was proposed that ‘free bus travel’ be available only at off-peak travel times. At all other times, free bus travel would continue to apply.
The fuss has been strikingly one-side: the proposal was denounced by politicians, interest groups and journalists. Otherwise, silence; including on this blog.
The case for this change is easily stated – rush hour is busy because of workers travelling to/from work at times they don’t control. So it is a more efficient use of the bus system that people with more discretion over when to travel, notably the retired, would use (free) buses only at other times. (Of course they could travel as paying passengers at any time.) Nearly one-tenth of passengers on the buses at rush hour use free bus passes. So either we expand the bus system or we move bus-pass holders to (free) travel at another time and release a lot of bus space.
Available information suggests this change would also improve fairness. There is considerable evidence that the retired are not poor, either in income or in wealth terms. Removing a small fraction of the bus subsidy would seem to be fair, especially if it also made the bus service work better.
The CSO’s 2013 Household Finance and Consumption Survey (Table 12) indicates that in households where the head of household was under 35, median net wealth was €4,000. For households headed by a person 65 or older, median net wealth was €348,000. It seems legitimate to conclude that the retired are not poor in terms of their net wealth. (This is hardly surprising; they have had decades more than twenty-somethings in which to save. Grey and wrinkled has a few compensations.)
For incomes, the CSO Survey on Income and Living Conditions (Table 1e) reported that in 2016 median net disposable income (adjusting for household size) was €21,387 for those aged 18-64 and not a very great deal less, €17,956, for those over 65. So for every €100 of net disposable equivalised income of the median member of the first group, the median retired person has an income of €84. The costs of the retired are surely lower than those working (mortgage, children’s education costs)? In any case, according to the report (Table 2) those aged over 65, have a lower risk of poverty (10.2% v. 16.6%) and also a lower rate of deprivation (13.1% v. 20.9%) compared to those of working age.
Given the similarity of incomes, there seems a solid basis to say the over 65s are not poor in income terms either, compared to the working age population.
Yet the older generation have various non-means-tested benefits including free bus passes. They were also essentially exempted from the post-2008 income and benefit reductions. I will leave the inter-generational aspects of the planning laws for another occasion.
Subsidies for the retired was recently raised in the UK which “continue[s] to treat pensioners as though they need free travel, winter fuel allowances and the like, despite the fact they are on average now the best-off demographic group in the country.” In a comment pertinent to the Irish case, the writer argued that amongst the UK groups needing more public funds are children and the mentally ill. If money goes to the over-65s, it will be harder or impossible to finance the other programmes.
The broader setting for this discussion is whether our prevailing redistributive and other policies in fact discriminate against younger rather than older generations. Many of the retired and soon-to-be-retired, benefitted from lower costs of going to college, drastically lower house prices, and much more generous pension schemes that today’s twenty- than thirty-somethings will have. On top of this there are pensions, free bus travel and other benefits; some of this money may have more deserving uses, not excluding healthier public finances.
From this perspective, do we redistribute income on the basis of means or, say, voting propensity? Regarding the latter, a rough calculation (exit poll age data, total turnout, and population less non-nationals) suggests that in the 2016 general election turnout was 41% for voters under 24, and 61% for those over 65.
How, then, was the bus-policy reform proposal responded to? It did not go down well! Its author was personally vilified and the proposal was drowned in ridiculous hyperbole, while more important aspects of the speaker’s policy recommendations at the conference passed unremarked. One Minister remarked that the civil servant’s suggestion was unprecedented. It’s not hard to see why.
There was the usual claim by a journalist that “free bus pass holders have contributed to the economy for decades” On that principle, shouldn’t everyone have everything free forever? (Where are our free newspapers?)
Senator Buttimer of Fine Gael demanded that the civil servant be fired. The Independent Alliance judged that this change would cause “severe hardship” and could jeopardise the ability of the retired to get to hospital. (Severe hardship? Really? No pensions, no cars, no taxis, no offspring, in Independent Alliance constituencies?)
Even the elusive Minister Ross took to the battlements to declare that the change would happen only over his dead body, although some think the Minister’s body has been alarmingly immobile since he took office. (Missing Minister.) The Minister added that this modest change was no less than “an extraordinary assault on the rights of older people.” (An extraordinary assault?)
As for the temerity of the civil servant, I believe the department he works for is called Public Expenditure and Reform. His remarks were made at a conference where the OECD recommended that Ireland needs to focus more on evaluation of the impact of public policies. The responses amounted to saying: our supporters like this policy, we are not interested in any evaluation.
This sorry episode is reminiscent of the ‘anti-expert’ commentary of members of the Bertie Ahern governments. Minister Martin Cullen in the mid-2000s dismissed warnings of economic overheating contained in an ESRI mid-term review of the public investment programme, as merely the views of ESRI ‘sandal wearers’. He insisted that the government would press ahead in the face of the advice it had itself commissioned. Ten years on, some current Ministers seem to believe much the same thing.
The retired in the population used to be poor. That’s not been true for a long time. Policy has to catch up. The Government should seek to improve the efficiency of the transport system particularly when it can be achieved at no loss of fairness. In any event, they should give a civil hearing to policy suggestions.
Complete inflexibility from the retired may leave them with few sympathisers should the large deficits in the public pension scheme require real fiscal surgery in the future.