IN DECEMBER 2011, the budget introduced massive changes to lone parent families, which will be further implemented in 2014, and completed by July 2015. These changes were originally touted as reform, not cutbacks, and when we look at the plight of lone parent families, it is clear reform was critical. Our society has changed, and consequentially many more children are living in one parent families, whether as a result of relationship breakdown or choice. Regardless of the reasons, children living in lone parent families deserve to be treated fairly and to be given an equal chance at life.
In February of last year, the Central Statistics Office published its Survey on Income and Living Conditions, a report that offers a chilling insight into the circumstances of one parent families. According to the survey, consistent poverty rates in the general population were 6.9% in 2011, but for lone parent households, they were 16.4%. The number of households suffering two or more forms of material deprivation was 24.4% but for one-parent families it was 56%. These stark figures highlight why a Labour Minister for Social Protection would feel compelled to make sweeping reforms.
Ireland has extremely high child care costs
Back in 1997, a Labour coalition government introduced an income disregard of €147.60 to activate lone parents into the job market. The disregard is the amount lone parents can earn before their social welfare entitlements are affected. By introducing this measure, the government acknowledged the extremely high child care costs prevalent in Ireland. Income disregard has not increased since then, but in Budget 2012, Minister Burton actually reduced it to €60 by 2015, which means a loss of €43 per week for a lone parent family in receipt of social welfare assistance. From January 2014, lone parents will lose €10 per week.
Budget 2012 also reduced the time frame that lone parents are able to receive the One Parent Family Payment, changing the age limit for eligible children from 14 to 7 years. By July 2015 this is expected to impact on 63,000 families. In April 2012 Minister Burton promised not to proceed with this controversial move unless she could provide a credible affordable childcare system. In May 2013, in the absence of such a childcare system, she proceeded with the changes, but did relent slightly by introducing Job Seekers Transitional Payment.
In effect, non-working lone parents will see no real changes, but a working lone parent earning €200 per week will see their income drop by €39. In a recent debate on the changes in welfare payment, Willie O’Dea highlighted the financial loss one of his constituents who will see her income drop by €68 per week. Given that the person in question is already on Family Income Support, which is for low income families, this reduction is very severe.
A highly competitive job market
In 2015, many lone parents will be forced into a highly competitive job market. They need to avail of training and education in 2014. It would be reasonable to assume that the savings made by the government’s reforms should be used to retrain and prepare lone parents for changes coming in 2015. However, in Budget 2014, Minister Quinn ceased a secondary payment to lone parents who undertake a FAS or VEC course. From January, because of childcare and transport costs, the reality is that lone parents will be effectively barred from training and educational opportunities.
This will be a difficult year for working and non-working lone parents. We all know that the most effective way out of poverty is paid employment, but the changes introduced in recent years and in years to come, will force many lone parents out of the paid workforce, and will make it harder for our poorest families to claw out of the welfare trap. The Department of Social Protection’s own analysis shows that the group most negatively impacted by Budget 2013 was working lone parents.
All children deserve to be valued, and if we allow such discriminatory and unfair treatment of children based purely on the relationship status of their parents, can we honestly claim that our attitudes have changed from the Magdalene Laundries era? The State must now, as a matter of urgency, ensure that 2014 is not another year where inequalities among children are accepted as the norm.