VICTORIA WHITE: Hopes fading that Children's Minister will take different view than her predecessor

No hint of restoring One Parent Payment to lone parents whose youngest child has turned seven

THIS Government seems to be just like the last one in viewing the lone parent as a potential danger to her own children. writes Victoria White

The Programme for Government makes no hint of restoring the One Parent Family Payment to lone parents whose youngest child has turned seven.

It does contain a clause saying the changes will be reviewed in the context of access to education, but not in the context of the access of parents to children and children to parents. The strong, moral tone declares that caring for your own child is the work the devil makes for idle hands. That if we leave a girl sitting around all day with her own child, the risk is that she will fall into moral turpitude, give in to the instincts of her fallen woman’s body, gaze into her child’s eyes, and bake him cup cakes.

She will not make a crust and, as she does not have a man to make her one, she will ask us for one. Then, she’ll ask for a whole sandwich! She needs to be ‘activated’. Those of you who say that she was activated the day her first baby dropped out of her are missing the point.

Hopes are fading that our new Children’s Minister, Katherine Zappone, will take a different view of the value of caring for children than did the last Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton. They are both feminists of the same era, Burton (67) and Zappone (62). They are steeped in a puritanical version of feminism which fears women’s instincts towards their children.

I have met Zappone a few times, and I not only respect her, I like her. She likes children. Once, years ago, my husband spoke at a conference with her, and I remember her coming out into the car park and sticking her head into our stinking car to greet our four, feral children. Any parent will understand what I mean when I say she ‘saw’ them. Not everyone ‘sees’ children.

But it seems that Zappone has imbibed the accepted wisdom of her generation of feminists that children do better away from their mothers. In a speech to the Seanad, on May 14 of last year, she announced: “The evidence shows that from age two and beyond, children do better in high-quality education and care services than if they remain at home.”

This is simply not true. The evidence is mixed, but the most recent research, from Growing Up in Ireland, finds no difference in cognitive-development outcomes between children who go to organised childcare and those who stay at home. Cognitive development is the area in which advantages have been found for childcare in the past, while relative weaknesses have been found in emotional development, not yet reported on by the research unit.

The findings held true for disadvantaged children as well as for the advantaged children who have rarely been found to benefit from organised childcare relative to home-raised children.

The largest childcare survey ever done in the UK, headed up by the childcare guru, Penelope Leach, made the general finding: “The less childcare before the age of three, the better”. It ranked creche care bottom of the league, compared with care given by family members or grandparents. Grandparents were recently found by Growing Up in Ireland to be giving children top-quality care.

Zappone accepts the received wisdom that children need to be home in their first year and cites UNICEF to back up her opinion. But UNICEF says only that one year should be the minimum supported time off for a parent, and describes entry into childcare before the age of one as “inappropriate”. So why is Zappone, as Children’s Minister, proposing Government-funded childcare for babies of nine months?

Many young parents are desperate for it, but their babies are not. As UNICEF says, this is because we have constructed a society in which two incomes are often necessary to meet housing and living costs, and the poorer the parent the greater the need to return quickly to work. But Zappone, and many like her, see an intrinsic merit in mothers returning to work, whether they want to or not.

Zappone believes so fervently in the need for two-year-olds to have organised childcare because she also believes in the need for mothers to have economic independence. But for many people it goes deeper. There is a puritanical feeling that children must be separated from their mothers by the time they’re one and for their own good. It is hard to fathom where that feeling comes from, except society’s general fear of the power of mothers. I wonder, is there also in it the Spartan tradition of toughening children up to achieve greater conformity?

In April of last year, as a senator, Zappone put down a motion, calling for a debate on the changes to the One Parent Family Payment. She withdrew the motion without putting it to a vote, following assurances that the Department of Social Protection would incorporate into policy the findings of NUIG sociologist, Michelle Millar, who had been commissioned to do a study on lone parents.

That report, which has still not been published, is limited to studying the labour activation of lone parents and focusses on access to education.

This is the only context in which a review of the One Parent Family Payment makes it into the Programme for Government, which Zappone negotiated. Few would dispute how important access to education is for economic and personal development, particularly as education often combines with raising a young child better than a job does.

But the lobby group, SPARKS, says the Programme for Government “ignores the devastation caused to other lone parents” by the changes to their payments.

According to the Programme for Government, the Family Income Supplement is to be turned into a general family payment, which will encourage families back to work.

But that is to wholly ignore the value of the work that lone parents do in raising their children and SPARKS says they are concerned that “this coaxing back to work will fail to recognise the dual role of carer and worker that a lone parent carries, will push lone parents into greater conditionality for payments and deeper poverty.”

LONE parents’ deprivation rate already stands at 33% above those of unemployed people, and 230% above that of the general population. We made a great leap forward in the early 1970s, when three new payments began to dismantle the stigma of lone parenthood by recognising that it is valuable work.

The last government leapt back towards the dark ages when it made caring on your own for children over the age of seven a burden on society, rather than a contribution. As Children’s Minister, Katherine Zappone has not so far shown any will to leap forward again.


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