Some children are more equal than others.
Take the child of a widowed mother, for instance. The mother is a single parent, but by no fault of her own. She may have a child who wants to go through four years of a university degree.
Why wouldn’t she? Wouldn’t the child’s father have wanted that?
Of course he would. He paid his PRSI contributions, after all. His wife has a contributory widow’s pension and his child qualifies for that pension until he or she is 23 years old, if in full-time education.
Now, take the child of that other kind of single parent, an unmarried mother. You know the kind of women I’m talking about. “Hussies” who tricked poor, unsuspecting men into having intimate relations with them and got themselves pregnant.
In most cases, their only hope of getting maintenance from the said father is taking him to court and getting a court order against him.
This may take a long time. Last year, 2,394 maintenance cases remained unresolved at the end of the court term (about a quarter of all maintenance applications), including those for arrears or to change the initial award.
A lone mother who makes the application may be ordered to pay her own legal costs, or she may not be. She may qualify for free legal aid, or she may not.
A father may pay the maintenance the court declares he should pay, or he may not. If he doesn’t, she may refer her case to the Department of Social Protection’s maintenance recovery unit, but her chance of success is about 35%.
Meanwhile, she must absorb the losses she sustained from missed maintenance, which may still be taken out of her social welfare allocation, although it has not been paid.
Once her youngest child turns seven, the maintenance recovery unit washes its hands of her.
The job is done, isn’t it? Well, that’s been the Department’s case since Joan Burton began her savage cuts to one-parent family payment, in 2012. Oh, sorry, the payment wasn’t cut; it was just the number of parents who got the payment that was cut: those whose youngest child had turned seven.
The maintenance recovery unit is only concerned with the management of the one-parent family payment, so the parent who no longer qualifies for this payment no longer qualifies for the unit’s assistance, either.
You can’t be giving handouts to hussies who get themselves into trouble, can you?
No-one has this attitude anymore?
I disagree. One Family’s searing new report into the operation of maintenance for lone parents — most of them women — paints our attitude to lone parents in stark colours, stating: “There appears to be a punitive residue remaining in our society in relation to those parents who parent alone — a constant positioning of these families as ‘social anomalies’.”
A lone mother, the report continues, can’t be seen simply as a “worker” in the traditional economy. It says a lone parent, who is the primary carer of a child or children, needs a particular suite of supports while her children are in education, and “can never be subsumed into activation measures that are designed for sole workers or two-parent families”.
This is because rearing a child on your own is work in itself.
The report goes further, calling out society for its under-valuation of the work of parenting, which, it says, becomes visible in the case of lone parents, but applies to all other parents, too.
I’ve been saying for years what the report rams home: Successive governments’ continuous attempts to obliterate from the record the work it takes to rear a child are evident in the 2012 policy, which shifts a lone parent to the job seeker’s transitional payment when the youngest child is seven, and to job seeker’s allowance when the youngest child is 14.
“Our current system”, says the report, “effectively erases this dependency entirely in terms of social policy.”
The really sickening thing about all of this, however, is that somewhere in the Department of Social Protection, there lurks the memory of what it takes to rear a child.
You can see that in the operation of the widows’, widowers’, or surviving civil partner’s contributory pension.
This pension provides extra payments for qualified children up until the age of 23, if the child is in full-time education.
Interestingly, it also provides a higher amount (€37 a month, as opposed to €34) for children over 12. It’s peanuts in the context of children’s needs, but at least the fact that older children cost more is recognised.
Well, you can say, those lone parents had a partner who paid over 260 PRSI credits, so they’re only getting what’s due to them.
Where does that leave the children of parents who did not have a husband, wife, or civil partner who paid enough PRSI? Nowhere, that’s where.
It is clear that a completely different set of measurements are applied to the children of God-fearing, hard-working, married parents, if one of them dies, than to the children of single parents, who get less support as they get older, not more.
That it is marital (or coupled) status which matters to the Department is made clear by the fact that widows’ and widowers’ pension, and their attendant, qualified child allowances, are cut off if the widowed parent is lucky enough to find happiness in coupledom again.
Our concept of fatherhood is at issue here: while the care accorded to the children of lone parents comes from the adult worker model, which obliterates any need for a father’s care after the age of seven, widowed people’s children benefit from the male breadwinner model, which makes them their father’s dependents until they are adults themselves.
Neither model puts children first.
Both models diminish fathers, who are invisible if they are not paying. They are nearly as invisible as the thousands of fathers of children born to Magdalenes in mother-and-baby homes, whose access to half their genetic identity is closed forever.
This wholesale failure to value fathers as necessary co-parents, rather than as failed or successful ‘breadwinners’, has resulted in a society in which the only demand many fathers feel is financial and most (nearly 60%) face it across a court-room.
One Family’s research shows that 41.7% of primary carers report getting no payment from the second parent, with second parents claiming to pay in 71.7% of cases.
It is past time we needed a statutory agency charged with recovering maintenance payments and, in the best models internationally, the State fronts up the payment before seeking it from the non-resident parent.
It’s time to end the ritualistic humiliation of lone mothers and the impoverishment of their children by a system that robs fathers of all dignity.