VICTORIA WHITE: Joan Burton’s treacherous attack on lone parents is Thatcheresque

What makes me maddest is that caring for a seven-year-old child isn’t work any more. 

From July 2 the Government will finish the job it began three years ago when it shunts a further 30,000 to 40,000 lone parents off their One Family Payment because their youngest child has turned seven.

Seven? Who thinks children can fend for themselves at seven?

If the authorities found a child that age alone all day, every day, his parents would be charged with neglect and the red-tops would be all over it.

Charles Dickens made a career of writing about young children wandering the roads on their own like little adults.

I thought we have left all that behind us, at least in this part of the world.

But these latest attacks by the Government on the dignity of single parents makes me fear for the safety of our children.

What makes this Thatcherite policy of attacking the One Parent Family payment, launched by Minister Joan Burton in the Budget of 2011, much worse is that it is a policy.

It’s about getting single women into the workforce because that’s what’s good for them.

Implied in that idea is the belief that women at home raising children as lone parents are doing nothing.

Kevin Humphreys, Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection, spelled this out with admirable clarity recently in the Dáil when he made this statement:

“Since its introduction in 1997, the One Parent Family payment scheme, which provides an important income support to lone parents, has been passive in nature.

“This has engendered long-term social welfare dependency and associated poverty among many lone parents in comparison to the population in general.

“The best route out of poverty and to social inclusion is through paid employment. I believe that supporting lone parents to participate in education and training once their children have reached an appropriate age will assist them into employment and financial independence.”

“Passive” is the word used to describe raising a child, or even children, on your own. How could any job be more “active” than raising a kid?

Society’s consistent portrayal of single mothers as “passive” has its roots in the mists of our cultural fear of women’s fertility.

Deep within our society there is still the terror that “loose women”, whose fathers we do not know, will go off and present us with mouths we cannot feed.

Behind the Government’s policy response lingers the belief that by separating mothers from their children at an “appropriate age” we are cleansing them of their impurity and making them candidates for the only social inclusion there is: being “active” in the labour force.

We are, after all, the same people who have just had to set up a public enquiry to work out why we separated unwed mothers from their babies, exposing them to an infant mortality rate four times that of the general population.

Today we accept a deprivation rate among lone parents which is 230% higher than in the general population, and 33% higher than in the unemployed.

It is we who decide who should be excluded and who should be poor. Why should raising a child on your own exclude you from society?

If you are doing this very hard but very important job you deserve our thanks.

Those thanks should include every possible help in forming social networks. And it is we decide who should be poor.

Clearly, a single person with childcare responsibilities who is not working full-time outside the home is unlikely to be a high-roller.

But we can make sure those parents and children aren’t living in poverty.

Instead this Government’s policy has caused a massive upswing in the number of lone parents who are living in “consistent poverty” which has now climbed to 23%.

“We may not have Magdalene laundries any more”, says Louise Bayliss of the Irish Single Parents Fight Back (S.P.A.R.K.S) campaign, “but we are accepting that a certain cohort of children will live in consistent poverty.”

What makes an absolute nonsense of the idea that the Government’s policy is going to assist lone parents “into employment and financial independence” is that its worst insult is to lone parents who are working.

In 1997 when we created the One Parent Family payment – to replace supports for “unmarried” or “deserted” wives, which were enlightened in their time – we created an “income disregard” which by 2012 meant you could earn up to €147.60 a week and still claim your One Parent Family allowance.

This recognised the fact that if you were a single parent you could not work outside the home without paying someone else to care for your child.

It is this “income disregard” which this Government has attacked, steadily eroding it until it stands at €90 for lone parents.

They initially aimed to lower it to €60, the same rate as applies to all job-seekers.

Without the intervention of a One Family campaign, the needs of the child of a single parent would have been completely wiped from the slate.

It is cynical to suggest that the Family Income Supplement restores this loss to lone parents. It typically restores 60% of the loss and that’s not counting the fuel allowance.

A lone parent previously in part-time work whose youngest child has turned seven may wake up between €60 and €80 a week worse off on July 2.

And there is a subsection of lone parents who fare worse again. There are 800 lone parents who are also caring for another family member and were receiving the half-rate carers’ allowance.

But if their youngest child is over seven on July 2 they will lose their One Parent payment and be forced onto a full-time Carer’s Allowance, losing as much as €86 a week.

That is as clear a statement as could possibly be made about the value we now place on caring.

After a seemingly effective campaign run against these attacks on the One Family Payment by a coalition, including Barnardos and One Family, Joan Burton stood up in the Dáil, on April 18 2012 and said that the changes would not be made until we had a childcare system “similar to what is found in Scandinavian countries”.

I usually refrain from personalised attacks on politicians because I think they are mostly trying to do their best.

But I find appalling Joan Burton’s treachery in pressing ahead with this attack on lone parents, although the nearest thing we have to a Scandinavian childcare system is the drop-off facility at IKEA.

After addressing an all-party meeting next Wednesday, the S.P.A.R.K.S campaign is running “Joan Burton’s School of Hard Knocks” at 3.30 pm outside the Dáil in which they will teach some pesky little children to grow up and cook, wash and iron for themselves.

This is something I have to see and I urge you to join me.

One Family’s lo-call helpline is 1890 662212; their Facebook page hosts a live question and answer facility for those affected by the changes to payments.

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