Economic deprivation, unemployment, and the sectarian divide

There has been much discussion in recent days, both in Stormont and here on Slugger, on Disability Living Allowance. Specifically, following the Minister for Social Development Mervyn Storey’s disclosure in the Assembly that West Belfast is the area with the highest levels of DLA claimants, there has been debate about whether DLA claimant levels are higher in predominantly Catholic areas. Instead of tiptoeing gently around the issue, I thought it would be interesting to see if there was indeed a relationship between the number of DLA claimants and the number of Catholics in an area. The graph below shows Northern Ireland’s 582 wards, showing the relationship between DLA claimant numbers (in 2014) and the percentage of the population belonging to the Catholic community in the 2011 census.

DLA by Ward by Catholic

As one might expect, the relationship is very weak. Although there is something there; of the 32 wards where the number of DLA claimants is over 20% of the population, 26 are wards where Catholics comprise over 75% of the population, and only two are in wards where Catholics comprise less than 25% of the population. There is also a cluster of wards where both the Catholic population and the number of DLA claimants is less than 10%.

There is a much better predictor of the number of DLA claimants, and economic inactivity more generally, than community background. A much more reliable indicator of economic inactivity is multiple deprivation. The Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure (NIMDM) ranks each ward in Northern Ireland based on a number of deprivation criteria, such as income, employment, health and education, going from 1 (most deprived) to 582 (least deprived). A plot of DLA claimants against this the multiple deprivation score gives a much stronger trend.

Working Age DLA by Ward

There is a very strong relationship between the deprivation measure and the number of DLA claimants in an area. Of course, a simple focus on DLA claimants does not give a complete picture of unemployment and economic activity. The following graph shows the relationship between combined unemployment and economic inactivity in an area, and deprivation. I have defined the metric as follows. First, I took the sum of all people unemployed and those economically inactive for any reason other than care, retirement, or education. I then divided this by the total of the economically active, unemployed, and economically inactive as defined above. Essentially, it is the percentage of the working age population who aren’t working for reasons other than care, education, or retirement.

Working Age Unemp or Inactive by Deprivation

Again, the relationship between total unemployment and inactivity, and deprivation, is very strong.

So why are most of the wards, where over 20% of the working age population claim DLA, in predominantly Catholic areas? A key reason for this is the simple fact that predominantly Catholic areas tend to be poorer and suffer more from economic deprivation than areas that are predominantly Protestant. In the bar chart below, I have apportioned the 582 Northern Ireland wards into 20 groups, going from 1 (most deprived) to 20 (least deprived). Within these groups, I have charted how many of these areas are predominantly Catholic (over 75% of the population Catholic), mixed areas (between 25% and 75% of the population Catholic), and predominantly Protestant (less than 25% of the population Catholic). The extent to which poorer areas tend to be Catholic, and more affluent areas tend to be Protestant, is apparent.

Deprivation and Demographics

By the measure defined above, of Northern Ireland’s 582 wards, 134 are predominantly Catholic, 230 are mixed, and 218 are predominantly Protestant. Of the poorest 29 wards, 19 are Catholic, 4 are mixed and 6 are Protestant. Of the 29 most affluent wards, 20 are predominantly Protestant, 9 are mixed, and there is not one single ward where Catholics comprise over 75% of the population. The reason why there are more DLA claimants in Catholic areas, and why economic inactivity and unemployment is higher more generally, is that economically deprived areas tend to be predominantly Catholic.

So, even when economic deprivation is taken into account, does the religious background of an area make a difference to the numbers of unemployed and economically inactive? The graph below shows the same data as the scatter chart above, except that each ward has been colour coded into predominantly Catholic, predominantly Protestant, and mixed areas. A trendline has been added for each of the three groups.

Working Age Unemp or Inactive by Deprivation and Demographics

As it happens, even when deprivation is taken into account, predominantly Catholic areas do tend to have higher levels of unemployment and economic inactivity than predominantly Protestant areas. This trend can be seen in the equivalent graph for working age DLA claimants.

Working Age DLA by Ward and Demographics

The link between community background and unemployment/inactivity is a complex one. It is true that high levels of unemployment and inactivity do tend to occur in largely Catholic areas, but this is predominantly due to the fact that very economically deprived areas tend to be Catholic for structural and historical reasons. However, even when this is factored in, there is a small but persistent gap between levels of unemployment and economic inactivity between predominantly Catholic and Protestant areas. Whilst the link between community background, deprivation and economic activity is a complex and sensitive one, dealing with it head on is vital if the economic potential of Northern Ireland is to be unlocked, whichever side of the demographic divide one happens to be on.

Data used in this analysis can be found in this Google Spreadsheet.

A qualified accountant and data analyst, interested in politics, economics and data. Twitter: @peterdonaghy