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Opinion: Lone parents who work get up very early in the morning - but Varadkar doesn't represent us

Lone parent families are twice as likely to be living in poverty now compared to 2012, but the Taoiseach doesn’t see that as a problem, writes Louise Bayliss.

Louise Bayliss Spokesperson and founding member, SPARK

THIS WEEK ST Vincent De Paul issued a report that illustrated that the number of lone parents who are working, but still living in poverty, has doubled from 2012 to 2017.

The author of the report, Dr Tricia Keilthy highlighted that in 2012, 1 in 11 households headed by working lone parents was living in poverty but that proportion had increased to 1 in 5 by 2017.

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar was questioned about the report in the Dáil and argued against the accuracy of the report.

Keilthy used data from the CSO’s Survey on Income and Living Conditions but Varadkar sited the same data to claim that poverty among lone parents had decreased during that time.

He didn’t argue against the fact that one in five lone parent families in work was living in poverty, but rather he argued that this was a slight decrease in the poverty rates for lone parent families overall. 

He is right about the overall decrease in the consistent poverty rates of all lone parents, but this report specifically examined the poverty rates for lone parents in paid employment.

The report highlighted the shocking fact that – despite the Taoiseach’s claims that he supports people who get up early – it is actually lone parents who are working that are being plunged into poverty. 

It is a spectacular policy failure by the Fine Gael government, that while overall poverty rates are falling as our economy recovers, working lone parents have seen their poverty rates double as a direct result of the government’s ‘work activation’ policy.

In Budget 2012, one parent family reforms were introduced which meant that by July 2015 lone parents would lose their one parent family payment when their youngest child turns seven.

There was no financial impact for lone parents at home, but a working lone parent earning the minimum wage lost €84 per week. Strangely this was touted as a ‘work activation measure’. 

The ‘work activation’ measures also reduced the supports available to working lone parents. 

The Exchequer impact analysis suggests that the reforms led to a net saving of €261.5 million over the period from 2013 – 2016.

This net saving was borne by working lone parents and their children and therefore it can be no surprise that poverty doubled for our families.

It is completely disingenuous of Varadkar to conflate the overall decrease in poverty with the proven increase in poverty among those lone parents who go out to work. 

We are repeatedly told that work is a route out of poverty so it is extremely worrying that increasing lone parents are forming part of Ireland’s working poor. 

When the reforms were announced, the then Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton pledged not to proceed with these changes unless there was an affordable Scandinavian-style childcare system in place.

It goes without saying that this did not happen. 

On paper, Irish wages and social welfare can seem relatively high, however, we have some of the highest childcare and housing costs in the EU and we also face a dearth of quality public services.

This means that Ireland has a cost of living crisis. Many young families are struggling with the exorbitant costs of childcare and housing costs and the impact of this on lone parent families is more severe.

Lone parent families are five times more likely to live in poverty than 2-parent families and are bearing the brunt of family homelessness.

Social Welfare rates for lone parent families are inadequate according to the Vincentian Partnership Minimum Essential Standards Calculator.

Many lone parents want to work and want to escape social welfare dependency, but are trapped by high childcare costs and inflexible social welfare rules.

The activation policy that was introduced in recent years has reduced supports for working lone parents and has trapped our families in poverty. This was all foreseeable and predicted.

We now have the irrefutable proof that the policy is poverty trapping families and increasing child poverty.
We need the government to accept the findings of all the independent reports and to stop manipulating the statistics to support their position.

If this government is serious about tackling child poverty, it needs to start targeting supports to the poorest families. We need a complete reversal of the changes to the One Parent Family payment – to ensure that work pays.

We need flexible education courses and employment opportunities that support the dual roles of learner or earner and primary carer.We also need a statutory maintenance enforcement agency that ensures all parents are held responsible for their children and removes the onus of seeking maintenance from the contentious court system.

It is a massive indictment of the current Government’s priorities that the only group that has seen an increase in poverty over this period are parents who are raising children alone and are also in paid employment.

Louise Bayliss is a spokesperson and a founding member of Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Kids (SPARK) a campaigning and advocacy group.

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About the author:

Louise Bayliss  / Spokesperson and founding member, SPARK

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