Single mothers of young children among most important workers

The message could not be clearer: Lone parents in Ireland have been impoverished by measures brought in by the Fine Gael/Labour government in 2012 which aimed to push them into employment.

Yes, the rate of employment among lone parents increased slightly between 2012 and 2017.

After the publication of the indecon report into the measures in 2017, this was trumpeted by Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty as proof that the 2012 activation measures were working.

Who are they working for? The State, which the Indecon report found to have saved €45m in social welfare payments, because of the measures? Or lone parents who are working, whose rate of poverty has more than doubled since 2012?

The statistics on lone parents which the Society of the St Vincent de Paul published this week are appalling. Our lone parents have the second highest rate of severe, persistent poverty among lone parents across the 15 most developed EU countries.

Parenting alone is no picnic across the EU, where, on average, single parents’ chance of experiencing deprivation is three times that of two-parent families.

Get to Ireland, and their relative rate of deprivation jumps to five times that of two-parent families. Our lone parents have the fourth lowest household income among the EU 15, beaten to this dishonour only by Spain, Portugal and Greece, all of which have more excuse that we do.

It’s true that we had a financial crisis, just like they did. Our incomes have recovered through the rest of the population while those of lone parents haven’t. Let’s call a spade a spade here: Lone parents are mostly women.

OK, there are some lone fathers but nearly all lone parents with welfare needs are female: 99% of one parent family payment recipients and 97% of jobseekers’ transitional payment are women.

They live in a country with massive wage inequality and in which there is a chronic housing crisis: 18% of lone parents are in arrears with rent or mortgage and 62% of homeless families are headed by one parent.

Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t believe the people of Ireland think we should stick it to single women struggling to parent alone.

When former Labour leader Frank Cluskey brought in the first allowances for single mothers in the early 1970s they were more generous and less conditional than what was then available in the UK.

They were, however, based on the so-called “male breadwinner model”, with the State essentially turning into the breadwinner for the lone parent. That model was appropriate at the time given the general lack of employment around and the lack of formal childcare provision.

There have been some shifts on both those fronts and it is understandable that the “male breadwinner model” is less in vogue.

It had a positive side for lone parents, however, in that it acknowledged that rearing children on your own was a job in itself.

Few nowadays would think it a great idea to offer lone parents a career plan which consisted of caring for their children full-time until they left school, with no opportunity for education and self-development.

What we offer them today, however, is brutal banishment into full-time work: One family payment until their youngest child is seven years old, a jobseekers’ transitional payment with a suite of activation measures until their youngest is 14 years old and then “So long, sunshine, we’ve done our bit for you.” The so-called reform of payments to lone parents ignored to a large extent their massive parenting commitments.

The most glaring omission from Government policy at the time was probably the lack of childcare provision, despite Labour minister Joan Burton’s commitment in the Dáil on April 18, 2012, that the “reforms” to lone parent payments would not happen until there was a “credible and bankable commitment” to “safe, affordable and accessible childcare similar to what is found in Scandinavian countries”.

The fact that she then went ahead and implemented the “reforms” without the childcare has never been explained and I have met many, even in the Labour Party, who are angered and embarrassed by this.

However, that is not the full story.

Childcare provision only goes so far in helping lone parents to earn a crust. The stubborn fact is that children are in themselves hard and unpredictable work.

The economic model behind the 2012 cuts is one on which this work doesn’t feature: That’s why the “reforms” to the one family payment worked to make part-time work less attractive, reducing the amount a lone parent could earn before losing benefits and working against parents wanting to commit to part-time work and part-time care, with the help of benefits.

This adult worker model sees all adult workers as just that — adult workers. There are no breadwinners, no dependents.

The problem is that life is not like that. Research from across Europe published in 2015 and quoted in the St Vincent de Paul report this week shows clearly that so-called activation measures can result in more in-work poverty for lone parents. It is the thesis of the authors, Jaehrling, Kalina and Mesaros, that the “adult worker model” makes life tough for lone parents if they lose the safety net which the male breadwinner model provided.

St Vincent de Paul cite the OECD’s research which shows lone parents doing better in countries where wages are more equal and flexible working is encouraged, in tandem with subsidised childcare.

Their suite of proposals to the Government to tackle the shameful state of lone parents in this country includes measures based less on the adult carer model as well as the adult worker model.

These include extending the jobseekers’ transitional payment until lone parents’ youngest child reaches the age of 18, instead of 14, and reducing the hours’ requirement for the working family payment for lone parents to 15 hours rather than 19 hours, so that lone parents can work part-time.

They include extending student grants to part-time students and introducing comprehensive financial cover, including transport and childcare, for lone parents attending a training course.

They include rolling out the IT system of the affordable childcare scheme so that parents on low incomes can be properly considered to avail of its provisions but also extending the scheme to cover childminders. Advocates have long argued that childminders can often offer the more flexible, home-from-home care needed.

St Vincent de Paul calls on the Government to make a serious plan to tackle poverty among lone parents in their forthcoming National Action Plan for Social Inclusion (2919-2025) but they will not able to do this unless they accept that single mothers of young children are among the most important workers in this society whether they are working or not.

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