Nearly 40% of poverty-risk families get just child benefit as State support

Family wellbeing report finds mothers in lower income households show higher depression levels

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said it appeared many families were not accessing the supports they were entitled to. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said it appeared many families were not accessing the supports they were entitled to. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Mon, Jul 15, 2013, 16:21

Almost 40 per cent of families living at risk of poverty receive no financial support from the Department of Social Protection other than child benefit payments, a report on family wellbeing has found.

The Family Wellbeing on a Limited Income report by the Children’s Research Centre at Trinity College Dublin for the Family Support Agency focused on families living at risk of poverty in Ireland.

The study of some 8,568 nine-year-olds and their families was based on data collected during the first phase of the Growing up in Ireland research conducted between 2007 and 2008.

The specific sample focused on families whose incomes categorised them as being at risk of poverty.

Over a third of them were headed by single parents and the vast majority of these lone parents were mothers.

The research found the majority of mothers and fathers had not continued education beyond lower secondary school level.

Almost 40 per cent of the families reported they did not receive any social welfare payment in addition to child benefit. Over a quarter of families at risk of poverty did not have a medical card.

Mothers and fathers living at risk of poverty were significantly less likely to report their health as excellent or very good and significantly more likely to report it as fair or poor.

Parents at risk of poverty were also significantly more likely to report having an ongoing chronic illness or disability.

Levels of depressive symptoms among parents were generally low, but mothers at risk of poverty had significantly higher average depression scores than those who were not at risk.

Some 15.3 per cent of mothers and 4.3 per cent of fathers were found to be depressed.

In addition, the socio-economic status of a third of families could not be classified as no parent in the household had ever been in employment.

Marking what he said was a “note of caution”, one of the report’s authors Brían Merriman said the data had been collected before the current contraction in economic growth.

Since then, more families were struggling having to deal with reductions in their standards of living or income reductions.

“Even for these families at risk of poverty, 40 per cent didn’t receive any additional support from Social Protection.

“So even those families who were at risk of poverty when times were better weren’t in receipt of additional payments.

“At the same time there have been cutbacks to some local services and there have been pressures on frontline services, which I know from other work are starting to be felt by a lot of people in a lot of places.”

There were particular stresses on mothers, he noted.

Data suggested that many mothers experienced stresses, including household deprivation, and tried to protect the rest of the family from them.

Mr Merriman said living at risk of poverty had a negative aspect on many aspects of family wellbeing.

Income was important, but it didn’t explain all the issues involved, including parenting and children’s behaviour and how people managed their relationships.

The research had identified risk factors but also protective factors that affected families.

“We suggest that any solutions to this have to be more than merely income based.”

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said the report highlighted the resilience of many families but also the pressures that low income brings, particularly in terms of health and mothers suffering depression.

It also highlighted the supports that were available in communities that were “extremely important in helping them cope”.

Ms Fitzgerald noted the “very disturbing” effects of early school leaving and the “huge price” families pay if they did not continue in education in terms of reduced job opportunities.

She said the best way out of poverty was “to have a job” and therefore creating jobs was a priority for the Government.

The Minister added that some of the families did not seem to be accessing all of the services they may have been entitled to from the State.

Frances Byrne of the organisation Open - an anti-poverty network for lone parents - said the figures were “startling” and, as noted by one of the report’s authors, had been gathered before austerity had really hit home.

“Lone parents now make up 18 per cent of a families, yet once again make up a disproportionate number of families living in hardship & poverty,” Ms Byrne said.

“The current government continues to pursue a programme of so-called welfare reform for lone parents, which will in fact cause greater and lasting child poverty. A future study will no doubt reveal this and by then it will be too late.”

Ms Byrne said Open fully agreed that work was the best route out of poverty, but the proposed reforms would “actually punish those in work”.