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There is no easy way to escape poverty as a single parent

A reader explains why education alone is not enough to gain financial security.

BEING SINGLE CAN suck at the best of times, but single parenthood is even less enjoyable.

Financial security is not enjoyed by the majority of single parent households in Ireland, 58% of whom live in poverty. The reasons for this are easily surmised from my personal experience: lack of affordable childcare, housing and family-friendly jobs that pay a living wage.

Recently, I’ve come across a number of feel-good stories about hard-working single-parents who managed to access third-level education in order to lift themselves and their family out of poverty.

I don’t like those stories much, because I tried to live that dream myself, and failed (call me bitter). I’ve also seen a good few of my closest friends try to live the dream and fail.

The truth is, education is only part of the solution.

Trying to live the dream

It is sometimes suggested that poor people simply should not procreate. I’m not going to go into just how much sense that makes in a country where abortion is illegal.

In my defence, I’ll just say that I wasn’t poor when I first made the decision to have my baby. I was young, granted, but in a four-year-long relationship, doing well at college, and looking ahead to a bright, stable future of well-paid employment and domestic bliss.

After that bubble burst, I decided to take my fortune into my own hands and invested my modest savings into a Masters at the prestigious, family-unfriendly Trinity College. I was going to work hard, get the postgrad, get the job, get the financial independence.

Juggling college and family life

I was only there for a year (what an expensive year) and I don’t think I would have lasted much longer. The rent remained stable at almost €1,500 per month, the discounted crèche fees exceeded €500 per month, and the little one still needed to be fed. All of those lectures and hours spent in the library didn’t make paying those bills any easier.

Dragging shopping bags home on the 39 bus, along with a cranky 3-year-old and a backpack full of books and homework, while my class were chilling at the bar, didn’t much lift the spirits either.

My attempts at finding creative solutions, like bringing my 3-year-old along to an evening seminar, didn’t work out too well. She used the chocolate I had bought as a bribe to draw monsters all over the desk. I decided to skip those seminars for the rest of the term.

I was one of the lucky ones. I already had a bachelors degree under my belt. The wonderful single-parents I made friends with at Trinity’s tiny student parent group had signed up for four-year degrees. Guess what? Not one of them successfully escaped the poverty trap.

No easy solution

Calls for the absent parent to foot the bills are difficult. It’s soul-destroying to drag someone, whom you might have once loved, through the family courts to make them cover half of your weekly Lidl bill. Even if you succeed, the money you get from the other parent is then taken straight out of your social welfare payments (if you’re poor enough to qualify).

We might not have any money but the absent parents, in many cases, don’t have much money either.

Relying on our families for free childcare and/or handouts isn’t the solution either, though half of my granny’s pension went straight into my private landlord’s bank account for several years before then she died. My full-time working mother still spends almost her entire annual leave child-minding each year.

Trying to find a job

I spent the summer after my graduation cleaning the on-campus accommodation my fellow students had occupied. I made a nice friend from Slovakia, who gave me a free duvet and recommended me, I suspect, for a part-time job that was going at Trinity Housekeeping. I was delighted when I got the job offer, cleaning the campus, 6am to 10am every Saturday morning. But childcare for those ungodly hours was impossible to find. So I had to turn it down.

Soon after, I landed a different part-time, zero-hour-contract job, working mostly evenings. It meant paying the extra childcare.

I later moved on to my current family-friendly part-time job. 54% of my income goes on the rent which is now about 400 per month below market rate (please don’t tell my landlord).

Childcare is still a cost, even with the part-time job. What’s left over, I use to feed, clothe and pay bills for two people.

Trying to win the lottery

While single parents generally aren’t much revered in public opinion, I’ve encountered very little ill-will over the years. My landlord is a gentleman. All of my bosses and lecturers have been supportive and kind. I’ll make an exception for the lady at the social welfare office who asked me why my daughter’s father had left me.

For all their good will, none of these individuals were able to provide me with the living-wage job, affordable childcare and secure accommodation that I so desperately needed.

Putting yourself through college is by no means a bad idea. It’s expensive, it’s hard work, but there are good times, and undeniably better job-prospects at the end. But it’s not a magic solution for struggling single parents who are caught between a rock and a tiny apartment they can’t afford.

There are three reliable ways in which a single parent in need can lift themselves and their child(ren) out of poverty, though they will remain permanently elusive to most: landing a 45k/year family-friendly job, finding a rich and generous spouse, or winning the lottery.

In their absence, we’re left with three, fundamentally un-sexy, long-term solutions: decent jobs, affordable childcare and secure, long-term housing.

The author has chosen to remain anonymous. She is a Masters graduate from Trinity College Dublin and a member of SPARK (Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Kids). 

Read: Labour TD accused of ‘appalling duplicity’ over stance on lone parent cuts

Read: Children whose parents are mentored are less likely to be overweight or have lower IQs


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