When asked what changes the Government could make to help one-parent families, Niamh McDonald responds almost immediately.
“We need universal free childcare for all, public affordable permanent homes for all, a system where maintenance is attached to earnings and a legal system that can get maintenance without the many, many court visits.
“We need a properly funded education system from primary to third level – access for all. We need book schemes and meals with no voluntary contributions that put parents, especially lone parents, into further poverty.”
Tanya Felloni elaborates on the maintenance payments.
“A single parent may have a court-ordered maintenance agreement. However, it falls on the parent raising the child to pursue legal action when returning to court. Where there is no agreement there are further services which are likely to cost the parties money if both are willing to come to some agreement. If no agreements are reached or there is unwillingness by a party to agree at all, then the courts are the last resort.
“In a way, the courts are the first and last resort with binding child maintenance agreements and orders.
“Recently Lynn Ruane made proposals that the Revenue Commissioner would calculate fair amounts of regular child maintenance payments, proportionate to a parent’s income and the amount of care they provide, and deduct the amount from negligent parents.”
Felloni points out that such a policy has the potential to shift the stigma attached to court proceedings for many parents in what is regarded as an anti-poverty issue.
Yet neither universal public services nor sensible standalone policy proposals find much airtime when it comes to discussions around lone parents in Ireland.
A lasting legacy
The One-parent Family Payment (OFP) was payable for any child up to age 18 (or 22 if they were in full-time education) before the Labour Party introduced the Social Welfare and Pensions Act in 2012, which reduced the age limit to 12 years. In 2015 Labour further reduced the age limit to seven years.
“Lone parents have been hugely negatively impacted,” says Louise Bayliss, co-founder and spokesperson for SPARK. “They have suffered a loss of income if they were working and options for training and CE schemes have been seriously curtailed.”
In 2017 Indecon prepared a report for the Department of Social Protection on the OFP cuts. It found that 48% of lone parents saw a drop in their income and 52% stated that their financial situation got worse after the changes. 40% identified that their child’s wellbeing had declined.
Bayliss points to a 2019 report from St Vincent de Paul which says that “Overall, it is apparent that the OFP changes that were designed and implemented in 2012 have failed. It reduced the income of lone parents who were already working, pushed more lone parents into low paid employment, increased their risk of poverty and deprivation, and reduced the well-being of their children.”
According to the report, on average across Europe one parent-families are three times more likely than two-parent families to experience deprivation. In Ireland, it’s five times. In 2017, Ireland had the highest rate (84%) of lone parents across EU-28 countries who were unable to meet unexpected expenses. Ireland also has the lowest level (58%) of lone parents in employment across EU-15 countries, and while the numbers in employment are rising, poverty among working lone parents doubled between 2012 and 2017.
“This year my youngest turns seven. I am now in receipt of the Jobseeker’s Transitional Payment and will financially struggle to cover education fees for both my children, creche fees, as well as college fees all on Jobseeker’s Transitional Payment,” explains Felloni.
“There’s the additional costs that fall under our education system, particularly secondary, that essentially funds the school’s electricity and heat because the State fails to do so. Even going as far as asking students to bring their own toilet paper. My daughter is in second year and each year the additional costs to get her the minimum standard of education increases. I can’t imagine how some parents do it with two and three teenagers.”
In September this year, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) published a report showing that lone parents and their children account for 53% of all homeless families. Lone parents had higher rates of affordability issues (19%) when compared to the general population (5%), and they were particularly vulnerable to housing quality problems such as damp and lack of central heating (32%, compared to 22% of the general population).
Such issues were not unforeseeable. Children’s rights and poverty groups raised concerns about the OFP cuts and ran campaigns over a number of years. They were told not to worry.
Speaking to the Dáil in 2012, the then-Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton said that she would only proceed with plans to change the OFP if she got a credible and bankable commitment in that year’s Budget that the Government would put a “system of safe, affordable and accessible childcare in place, similar to what is found in the Scandinavian countries to whose systems of social protection we aspire.”
When the further changes were going through in 2015 she said that, despite the State putting “a huge amount of money into supporting lone parents over the years”, lone parents were still at risk of poverty. “The best way to reduce that risk of poverty for lone parents and their children is to look to find them well-paid employment, careers and work opportunities and that is what the policy is about,” she said.
An easy target
For Bayliss, the way to support one-parent families is obvious: “Every report has said that for lone parent families to do well, we need affordable housing, affordable childcare, well-paid family-friendly jobs, and adequate social welfare.”
While all policies can have unintended consequences, no one who spoke to LookLeft for this article suggested that the negative consequences of the OFP cuts were because the Government of the time hadn’t done enough research.
“Single parents – mainly women – continue to be an easy touch for the State,” says Felloni. “There’s a misconception that because Joan Burton is a woman she may have some ounce of empathy towards single parents.”
McDonald agrees: “I felt the changes were about what cuts they could implement on easily-targeted communities and the lone-parent community is one of those. It was disorganised, low on resources, and easy to attack.
“Lone parents have always been stigmatised so wider Irish society would not kick up, for instance comparing it to the proposed cut on the [old age] medical cards by Fianna Fáil at the start of the crash. Lone parents don’t have that political capital. So it was about the money, not education or employment.”
Irish society’s stigmatisation of lone parents hasn’t gone away, according to McDonald.
“We have the notion of the single mother sponging off the state when, in reality, we are creating generational trauma in low-income areas, stigmatising children at a young age,” says Felloni.
“How we look at and understand issues such as child poverty needs to change.”