Warning as cut to lone-parent payment could push many to poverty

Social Protection Minister Joan Burton has been urged to hold back on cutting the main support payment to lone parents amid warnings that it could push many people into poverty.

Budget 2013 included measures included changes to the One-Parent Family Payment (OPFP) that were to be phased in over a period of time, described as activation measures to encourage more lone parents to access work or education.

However, while the changes to the criteria for eligibility have already seen thousands of lone parents affected, tens of thousands of others face losing the OPFP in July — including an estimated 4,000 who are already working.

One Family, which provides support for one-parent families, said that there was inadequate research at present into how the changes already implemented had affected people — and similarly, how the impending changes would impact on families from this July.

According to One Family, an estimated 36,348 people will be affected by the changes this July, a far higher figure than in the same month in 2014 and 2013.

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Karen Kiernan, CEO of One Family, said: “The transition of another 30,000 [people] off the OPFP has to be stopped and paused until the right supports are in place and research is done to see how it has impacted on those who have already transitioned. We think they are poorer [as a result].”

Some research is underway into international models of activation supports but One Family said plans for Scandinavian-style childcare supports had clearly not come into being.

Niall Egan of the Department of Social Protection recently told an Oireachtas Committee: “With regard to childcare, as I stated, the key measure to be addressed first is the jobseeker’s allowance transition payment. It largely negates the need for a lot of child care provision.”

He said someone with a young child can qualify for the Family Income Supplement (FIS) “and still not require child care provision because FIS involves 19 hours, which works out at just under four hours per day. Admittedly, this is not possible in all circumstances but it is possible for a lone parent with a child in school to match what is required”.

One Family said Jobseeker’s Transition Payment was not filling the gap for families losing the OPFP.

It said that while the system did need to be reformed, the changes were counter-productive, reiterating that “the real impact of these current reforms is that many thousands of parents will experience catastrophic reductions in their weekly income” and that “many will now be forced to give up their part-time jobs, due to a complex and unwieldy system”.

One Family gave a number of examples in which it said part-time workers would be most affected by the changes.

In one example, of an OFP recipient with a 15-year-old daughter and a 15-hour-a-week contract, she is ineligible for FIS because her contract does not state she works 19 hours or more a week, or 38 in a fortnight and, as her child is over 14, the woman will not qualify for Jobseeker’s Allowance Transition and so must meet the full conditionality of Jobseeker’s Allowance.

One Family said this would mean that, for those weeks when her work is spread over more than three days, she will no longer be eligible for any payment.

In another example, of a man on OFP and with a morning job while his two children are at secondary school, he also faces being moved to Jobseeker’s Allowance once his youngest child turns 14 and will not be eligible for FIS as he cannot increase his hours in his current job, but will also not meet the eligibility criteria for Jobseeker’s Allowance if he continues with his job.

“He will have to give up his current job and will be down €100 per week,” said One Family.

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‘It’s not about money, it’s about emotional support for kids’

“I don’t actually know, and that’s the truth of it,” says Karen, a mother of two from East Cork.

On paper, it doesn’t seem like much of one. For the past 14 years, she has been working part-time in a job she loves in Cork, clocking up 19 hours spread across two-and-a-half days, meaning on the other days she is at home for her two boys, who are both at primary school.

But the times are changing. Back in Budget 2013, Minister for Social Welfare Joan Burton announced phased changes to the parameters for the One-Parent Family Payment (OPFP). As those changes have come in, changing the eligibility thresholds, it has affected Karen’s financial situation.

Now, with the final changes due in July, Karen believes that she faces a choice: Give up work altogether to be there for the boys, or work full-time, slashing the amount of time when she, as the lone parent, will be available to them.

“Lone parents should be applauded and given as much support as possible,” she says. “It needs to come away from the Live Register and money and politics and come down to emotional support for children.”

In a letter to Ms Burton, Karen outlined how, while continuing in her job-share, in recent years the children’s allowance has been reduced and the OPFP has been reduced by €58.80 per week. This estimated overall loss of €74.30 a week was offset with the support of the Family Income Supplement (FIS), but she is still down €40 a week.

In July, Karen will no longer receive the OPFP, resulting in a further loss of €75 per week, and she will also no longer qualify for the €20 per week fuel allowance in winter, as one of the conditions of eligibility was to be in receipt of the OPFP.

If all this sounds confusing, it is, and other lone parents in different circumstances will be affected in different ways.

Karen recalls that when the changes to the OPFP were announced they were to be implemented along with a Scandinavian-style childcare system, which has not materialised.

She wrote to her local TDs but did not receive a adequate response, and she is hoping that some alterations can be made that will allow her to continue the way she is: working because she wants to work, and being at home as the one adult in the house for her children.

“The family home is the foundation of our society and we cannot underestimate the importance of at least one consistent parent within that home,” she wrote to Ms Burton.

She is still investing faith in something changing, and so is putting off her decision.

“I really have not given up hope of Joan Burton turning this around,” she says.

“I don’t want to think about the alternatives.”

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