Ireland has an unusually high percentage of households that are “jobless” — where either none of the occupants are working or where they have very limited access to work.

Earlier this year, the Department of Social Protection reported that there are 253,000 such households in Ireland, out of a total of 1,440,600, some 17.6%. This is admittedly an improvement from 2014, when it was reported that 23% of Irish households were jobless.  It is nevertheless extraordinarily high.

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty, in explaining why there was a big difference between the figure of 17.6% and the (then) unemployment rate of 6.4%, stated that “Relevant groups, not normally considered to be unemployed, include economically inactive lone parents, people with disabilities, and the adult dependants of unemployed people, all of whom might benefit from closer attachment to employment and the labour market,”

So while many of these households are jobless due to single-parent circumstances or to disability, or to poor education or lack of skills, there can be no doubt that a significant proportion contain adults that are capable of work but find it unnecessary or undesirable to exert themselves in this direction.

There are a huge number of vacancies in Ireland for people with even modest skills, in areas such as hospitality, agriculture and construction. To fill these vacancies, employers are increasingly turning to migrant workers.  This in itself is not problematic, as these new arrivals tend to be hard-working and generally contribute a lot to society (and to the State’s tax revenues).

But immigrant workers need housing.

Consider a hypothetical situation where an incremental number of persons (say 100) who are currently in employment decide that it doesn’t suit their requirements and will instead draw unemployment/jobseekers benefit. This will lead to the creation of a similar number of job vacancies, which will inevitably be filled to a large extent by inward migrant workers.  These migrant workers need housing, but since the people whose jobs they are now doing will generally still be in the same housing they occupied before becoming “unemployed”, the net demand for housing will increase, I suspect by something like 60 or 70 units.

If say one in ten of the 125,000 currently unemployed, plus one adult (dependant or otherwise) from say 15% of jobless households, were to enter or re-enter the jobs market, this would supply 50,000 workers to fill the currently available vacancies. This would lead to a large fall in inward migration and an equivalent reduction in the need for additional housing – about 2 years’ worth of required home construction.

I am not suggesting that all or even most people who draw the dole are doing so as a matter of choice – I have no doubt that genuine unemployment is still a real problem for many in Ireland.  But our system, through its looseness and relative generosity (compare our Jobseekers Benefit rates with the UK for instance), and the high rates of marginal tax on even modest earned income, has an inbuilt disincentive for all but the most assiduous persons to fall into unemployed status.

It’s not as simple as saying that homelessness is caused by immigration.  But immigration is a necessary (and welcome) result of the fact that too many people who are already in housing do not (for whatever reason) take up the available jobs that need to be filled.  By focusing on immigration in the context of homelessness, we would be looking to a symptom rather than the disease itself.