Fintan O’Toole: Poorest will be hardest hit by lone-parent cut

‘Back to School allowance for clothes and shoes were cut by one-third in 2014 from €150 to €100 for primary school children aged four to 11’

‘The payments were cut by one-third in 2014 from €150 to €100 for primary school children aged four to 11, and from €250 to €200 for secondary school students aged 12 to 17. This was a cold, deliberate choice to increase poverty among the children we know to be most vulnerable.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘The payments were cut by one-third in 2014 from €150 to €100 for primary school children aged four to 11, and from €250 to €200 for secondary school students aged 12 to 17. This was a cold, deliberate choice to increase poverty among the children we know to be most vulnerable.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

In government, as in medicine, the first principle should be – first do no harm. And in a State that has a shocking crisis of child poverty, the first principle must be: don’t do anything that you know will make more children poor. Right now, though, the Government is doing exactly that. While we keep being told that the recession is over, recession-era policies are still being rolled out. And we know for certain that one of them in particular will create more poverty among children.

Child poverty almost doubled in the austerity years. In 2008, just before the crash, 6.8 per cent of Irish children were living in consistent poverty – a shameful figure in itself. By 2013, that proportion had almost doubled to 11.7 per cent.

That’s 138,000 children – pretty much an entire Galway city plus an entire Limerick city of consistently poor kids. Obviously, much of this increase was driven by the wider economic collapse, and especially by unemployment. But direct Government decisions have knowingly made things worse.

To take just one of the most egregious examples, the Back to School allowance for clothes and shoes was savaged. This is a very small payment, with a negligible effect on the public finances. (It’s €45 million from a welfare budget of almost €20 billion.) But it matters a lot to struggling families and especially to the children in those families who are trying to look like normal kids in normal schools.

Stringent means test

The allowance is subject to a stringent means test so we know that those who get it are exactly the kids most likely to be suffering the effects of poverty. The payments were cut by one-third in 2014 from €150 to €100 for primary school children aged four to 11, and from €250 to €200 for secondary school students aged 12 to 17. This was a cold, deliberate choice to increase poverty among the children we know to be most vulnerable. For what? The saving to the State was a grand total of €15 million – margin of error stuff.

And right now, the Government is about to implement a large-scale policy change that it knows very well will add to child poverty. As of next month, the “reform” of welfare payments to single parent families will really start to bite. All the evidence suggests that its effects will be bad for the children in those families.

This policy is justified as a way of ending a culture of dependency, or in the more lurid formulations, of getting “welfare queens” off the backs of the taxpayer and into the workforce. But this is not at all what is happening. Any sane person would agree that leaving single parents in dependency is bad for them, for their children and for society.

Public policy should be consistent about helping lone parents (and for the most part we’re talking about young women) back into education, training and stable employment. But it’s not a slogan, it’s a serious business. A lone parent can’t ditch a child and go off to work without access to education, childcare and a stable job with a living wage.

What’s actually happening with all of this is typical of public policy in so many areas – one set of provisions is closing down without the alternatives being in place. Hence, we have a laudable aim – let’s move most of the 95,000 parents who were getting One Parent Family (OPF) allowance in 2011 into education and work. Let’s cut their current incomes but help them to better themselves and make more money through other supports and, ultimately, through being able to stand on their own two feet.

Thus, 15,000 parents have had their OPF payments stopped when their children reach the age of seven. And next month another 40,000 parents are to be reclassified as “job-seekers”, losing their OPF payments and moving to other kinds of “transitional” welfare support.

But the policy has been a complete failure. There’s a very simple question – are more lone parents now in the workforce? And a very stark answer – no, there are many fewer. In 2012, 60 per cent of lone parents getting OPF were actually working at least part time outside the home. And in 2014? Just 36 per cent were working. Why? Because the whole policy is a mess of contradictions.

Welfare supports

Instead of actually encouraging parents into the workforce, the Government massively decreased the amount they could earn before having welfare supports slashed. Community employment (CE) schemes, crucial first steps back into work for single parents, have been hammered. Training supports for the remaining CE schemes were gutted. Access to education has not improved. And of course, childcare provisions remain among the worst in the developed world.

There is no evidence that a single child is better off because of these policies and strong evidence that many children are being caught in the gap between rhetoric and reality, good intentions and half-arsed implementation. Continuing with this incoherent, contradictory and ineffective policy will make life harder and more miserable for real Irish children right now. The first move is to stop it.

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