After all, in 2006 they set about reforming how lone parent families are supported in order to, ‘create an expectation of participation in the workforce amongst lone parents as children age’. Previously, lone parents were neither on the live register nor compelled to engage with employment or training , and could receive One Parent Family Payment (OPF) until their child was 18 years (22 if in education). Post-reform, OFP is only paid to parents whose youngest child is age 7 or younger. Parents then receive job seekers allowance and are required to seek employment and/or engage in training.
But lack of ‘expectation of participation’ is not necessarily the biggest problem facing lone parents. Many lone parents want to work outside the home. Forty-two per cent are employed and lone mothers go back to work earlier from maternity leave than mothers in two-parent families according to Growing Up in Ireland, a major study on children’s lives. A lone parent in SVP’s new research on lone parent families seeking assistance from SVP, “It’s the Hardest Job in the World”, said,
“I’d like to go back to work now the kids are in school for longer. So sometraining or help
getting a job would be great. I just love to do maybe four
or five hours…a few hours every day. But there’s not much available. I do
still have to be there every afternoon. So if I could get the part-time job
during the morning, early afternoon, that would be amazing.”
So the reforms were far from perfect; they didn’t address the serious shortage of affordable preschool and school-age childcare places, for instance. But there was never a suggestion that lone parents would be financially worse off as a result of reform.
But then along came the Government’s austerity policy. Amongst other cuts, the earnings limit to qualify for the full OPF payment has been reduced in successive budgets from €146 to €90 a week, and will be cut to €60 by 2016. “It’s the Hardest Job in the World”, found that when taking up employment was seen as too costly in terms of lost supports, parents were unable to return to the workforce and Lone parent organisation One Family is concerned that parents working part-time will see their income hit, while those out of work will not.
As the OFP cuts come on top of Budget cuts to Child Benefit and the Back to School Allowance; increases in prescription charges; and increased taxes on fuel and VAT, it comes as no surprise that income poverty and basic material deprivation is increasing for lone parent families (17.4 % in 2012, from 16.4% in 2011), and that they continue to be the group most likely to experience poverty in Ireland.
Child and family poverty is unacceptable. So it seems that the left hand of budgetary policy does not know what the right hand of reform for lone parents is doing. Improving the life chances of lone parents and their children should be the focus of any reform.
We need to see real and meaningful changes in Budget 2015. Government has started well, announcing that parents moving to employment can retain for a time the €30 per week per child payment they receive as part of their social welfare payment. Let’s see more of these kinds of policies that support employment and also protect children and their parents from falling into poverty.