All the major discussions about welfare cuts and mandatory labour schemes seem to have ignored the plight of one already very hard done-by group: the lone parent.
As of July 3rd this year; 9,300 people no longer qualified for the One-Parent Family Payment (OPFP) scheme and another 60,000 will have their access removed by July 2015. Previously, the OPFP was received until the child reached the age of 18 but the cut-off has now been reduced to age 7. Supposedly this change in eligibility was implemented by Joan Burton to cut down on “extraneous” social welfare costs but what it really represents is an attack on the rights of lone-parents, who are primarily women, and their children.
These parents are being told that OPFP payments, something that was devised to try to ensure that children are not raised in dire poverty, is no longer a priority. This indirectly shows that the state’s real opinion is that a lone parent’s role in raising their family isn’t regarded as being of importance even though the majority of this work is expected to be done completely for free with very little support. It must be noted that this cut in the One-Parent Family Payment is just the latest in an ever-growing list of cuts to this payment and other necessary funding for parents, carers and guardians.
For context on the severity of the situation, consider some statistics drawn from the EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions1, which states that, in 2012, one in ten children under the age of 18 continued to live in consistent poverty, up 9.3% from the year before. Consistent poverty means that children are living in households with incomes below 60% of the national median income, which can mean going 24 hours without a substantial meal or being cold because their parents cannot afford heating. For single parents the case is far worse, with 18.8% of lone parent families being at risk of poverty in 2012. While no newer figures are available, one can safely assume that with an extremely restricted job market and continuing cuts to benefits, this situation has only worsened.
We have seen countless examples of where the care of children has been treated as a secondary concern or an inconvenience to the state and unfortunately we all know where this attitude leads. In Greece, IMF cuts have continued with little respite and according to the latest UNICEF report; one in three children is at risk of poverty or social expulsion. The causes of this largely mirror our own: rising unemployment and cuts in welfare benefits.
According to Ms. Burton this cut to the One-Parent Family Payment is no reason to despair entirely because there are some small increases being made to the Carer’s Allowance and the Family Income Supplement (FIS). This argument has some serious flaws as the FIS can only be claimed if the parent is working, and it is only paid for a maximum of 52 weeks, while carers alone have access to the other allowance. The loss of the OPFP will hit both these groups much harder than these paltry increases will help. Any parents who are currently employed and ineligible for either supplement will be taking a €70 cut in their monthly payments, and while this is a lot of money for anyone, for someone who needs to keep a child clothed and fed it can make or break the month.
For everyone else not working its Job Seeker’s Allowance and Job Seeker’s Transition, and just in case you thought everyone would be granted the buffer of transition time, it’s only available if the child is under 14 years old. As well as this, both require partaking in job activation schemes, meaning JobBridge and Gateway, and this forces lone parents to work for 40 hours a week for €5.90 an hour at best, assuming they’re over 25. For comparison, the national minimum wage for an experienced adult employee is €8.65, while an employee under 18 is entitled to €6.06 per hour (70% of the minimum wage).
But why are lone parents being targeted when they are already at such risk of poverty? Sadly it is the publicly accepted image of the “never-worked-a-day-in-her-life Welfare Mother” that most people think of when they hear the words “lone parent” which provides perfect cover for the state to get away with these cuts. This is often the same nonsense recited about asylum seekers and non-nationals living in Ireland. Needless to say, the ‘Welfare Mother’ is a horrifically classist and sexist myth that blames working class women for giving birth outside of the “traditional household”.
Sorry to break it to you but the ‘Welfare Mother’ concept was never real. The only place the myth touches on reality is in the fact that 98% of single parents are mothers.
Contrary to the myth, 58% of lone parents are already in the labour market2. Even though the majority happen to be working, they still exist within a society that is organised around the expectation that a family will have two incomes, with one parent (generally a mother) put upon with the double shift of housework and family maintenance once she has finished her “real job” for the day. Thus, lone parents are often left with little choice but to accept low paid employment, generally on a casual/part-time basis on zero hour contracts, with little option to find work elsewhere. While the state supposedly wants to get these lone parents (read: women) working, they disregard the structural inequalities that govern what kind of work is accessible to them and do not care whether it suits their daily needs.
Furthermore, lone parents are also subjected to the following barriers:
- Childcare is expensive and can be hard to find and access in many areas.
- Being a lone parent means lone responsibility for all parental duties, with few employers mindful of the dual role a worker/parent has.
- Sexism still exists in hiring practices and wage negotiations.
- The stigma of the lone parent can be overpowering in interviews and throughout job seeking.
- Lone parents often have long absence from workplace due to pregnancy and parenting duties.
- The job market itself is unkind to the majority of people at the moment.
Intergenerational poverty is cited as the key reason for reform of the One-Parent Family Payment but poverty cannot be defeated by pushing people into underpaid jobs, forcing them to partake in schemes where they earn less than minimum wage or cutting benefits that people desperately rely on.
Poverty needs to be tackled in a wholesale way and, in this author’s opinion, this truly cannot happen until there is a fundamental shift in how the state approaches welfare and disadvantaged groups. While the current economic and political system limits the ability to achieve real improvement in peoples’ material conditions, there are still ways that this issue can be, and should be, dealt with in a more compassionate manner. In essence this requires a switch from treating groups such as lone parents as an unfortunate burden on the state, towards creating a system that will recognise the challenges they face and support them in achieving the best they can for themselves and their children.
While not an extensive list, some more specific points can be made:
The mandatory nature of JobBridge and labour activation schemes have caused unnecessary hardship for the unemployed, particularly those who are lone parents, and should be scrapped immediately. It is estimated that JobBridge has cost the Government an extra €54 million and this money would have been far better spent on retraining and a real jobs program that aims to provide a living wage for people rather than just subsidising the private sector through the provision of cheap labour.
The resounding failure of the Irish state to provide affordable and accessible childcare/crèche facilities is a blight on our history and greatly restricts the ability of parents to work and raise a family at the same time. Investment in such services would allow many parents to re-enter the labour market, reduce reliance on welfare services and go a long way towards providing working-class and lone parent families with the supports they need to access secure jobs with a living wage.
The lack of access to affordable housing is a problem faced by an increasing number of families across the country, requires significant investment in the long term to ensure that social-housing is available to any who need it. In the short term, there should be a legal requirement that landlords have to accept rent allowance as a legitimate means of payment, as this is the primary housing support available for lone parent, working class and disadvantaged families.
The recent cuts to lone parent payments are the latest in a long line of attacks, representing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the enforced impoverishment of particular groups by a state who sacrifices them to ‘rationalise spending’ regardless of the social cost. Unions, the left and other progressive forces need to take up the challenge and defend the rights of lone parents and any group which suffers attacks to their standard of living in this manner. Our state is one that relies on the exploitation of the many for the needs of the few. It’s well overdue that we start talking openly about these issues and begin to even the score.
The time for action is not now, it was yesterday.
Spark – Single Parents Fighting Back
For lone parents looking to organise and get active fighting cuts.
One Family- better lives for one parent families
For information and support
OPEN – Representing Lone parent groups in Ireland
For information and support
Scambridge – Scrap Jobbridge, fight for real jobs
For anyone looking to get involved in organising around defeating Jobbridge
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