Lone parent Sarah Conway thought she would never be able to turn around again and say “life is amazing”. But that’s what it’s like in the depths of depression – “you can’t see a way out”, she says.
Securing a part-time job last May has helped to transform her life at home in Dublin 8 both financially and psychologically. Not just for her, but also for her three daughters, aged 11, four and three.
“Financially it has turned everything around for us, everything, down to being able to have days out with the kids, able to buy full shopping for the week, able to buy petrol, to have a car to bring them around – it has completely changed my whole life.
“I don’t have to depend on the fathers of the children anymore; I don’t have to depend on anyone, I just depend on me. This has boosted my confidence amazingly and my children are so happy and so am I.”
The eldest child goes to her father regularly, but the father of the younger two is not involved, she says, in their parenting.
Conway’s lone-parent payment went down by €30 a week when she started the 20-hour job as an office cleaner in Ballsbridge, “but it is still a positive as I am working and I am earning”, she says. Key to that is being able to align her hours with school time and so minimise her childcare costs; she will have two in school from September and one in a creche.
“It’s brilliant. It means I never miss out on any time with them – that’s why I want to work part-time.”
Her employer is also willing to be flexible. For instance, when she wanted to attend a child’s sports day she was told she could come in before or afterwards, or, if she couldn’t manage that, to make it up a different day.
Currently the creche continues for the younger ones, while the eldest attends a summer project some days and goes to her father on others; family and friends also help out.
While being back in the workplace seems to be working well for Conway, many other lone parents don’t fare so well.
One Family has been very critical of social welfare reforms dating back to 2011
For a start, in the case of minimum wage work, the sums may simply not add up due to anomalies in the social welfare system and the costs of holding down a job – principally childcare but also commuting.
A helpline run by One Family, a support organisation for lone parents, is often contacted by callers saying they have been offered a job with X wage and will it pay?
"It is hard to have to point out sometimes that they will be worse off financially if they take that job," says programme manager Valerie Maher. "Would anyone do that if they thought their children would have less? And these people are already struggling financially."
There’s something wrong if work doesn’t pay because of issues around housing, childcare and the supports they lose through going into employment. “It might be of longer term benefit if they take that leap,” she says, “but it is a pretty big leap to ask parents to take.”
There has been a trend across Europe in recent years to “activate” lone parents into the labour market. “That’s fine if the supports are there to help them with that. It is not that we are against parents being activated per se, it’s being activated without the supports,” she says. “They are being forced into jobs which are never going to give them a decent quality of life.”
And if they are on the working family payment they are not eligible for a back-to-education allowance.
One Family has been very critical of social welfare reforms dating back to 2011, when it was announced that those on the one-parent family payment would be transferred to a jobseeker's payment when their youngest child reached the age of seven, or, if they entered work, they would receive other in-work supports. The "earnings disregard" – the amount a lone parent can earn before their payment drops – was also reduced.
The stated aim of the changes, which were fully implemented by 2015, was to enable lone parents to move from social welfare into education and employment. However, due to systemic inconsistencies the reforms ended up hitting hardest those who were already in part-time jobs, according to One Family.
The young and seemingly arbitrary age of seven for the cut-off was, Maher believes, linked to the introduction of accessible and affordable childcare, which was then delayed. It was only last September that an interim version of a new childcare scheme was started, which has its own limitations.
“If it was going to be delayed then the reform should have been delayed as well. Seven is not an age where a child can look after themselves or support themselves,” she says.
Research published by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) earlier this month finds that reform of the one-parent family payment did make employment "slightly less attractive" for lone parents. It resulted in small income losses of between 1 per cent and 2 per cent for employed lone parents compared with the benefits previously available.
The study concludes that the changes had little impact on non-employed lone parents, who had negligible to small increases in take-home income as a result.
The lobbying group Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Kids (Spark) was “very upset” with the ESRI’s aggregated figures. It argues that they did not show how the poorest working lone parents were most affected.
"We know that those most reliant on social welfare in work lost 18 per cent of their income – not 1.9 per cent," says Spark spokeswoman Louise Bayliss. "That was roughly €83 per week. If you are going into a minimum wage job you are better off not working now because of that loss of €83. If you've got childcare and travel costs you may as well stay at home."
While one big social welfare change comes when a child turns seven, there is no allowance made at all for lone parents after their child’s 14th birthday – they are treated like any other jobseeker, says Bayliss.
“You are talking about 14-year-old children unsupervised for three months of the summer, without a male role model in the house mainly, who may be growing up in disadvantaged areas. It’s just a recipe for disaster.”
One Family has just completed a European collaboration with four other organisations – in Scotland, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic – on ways to support lone parents in the workplace. This was in response to seeing how social policy was moving lone parents into work yet they were either not earning enough or were not able to stay in a job.
In the second and final phase of the four-year project they produced and piloted online training, both for parents struggling to stay in employment and also for employers and HR staff who want to retain them.
One Family points out that tackling the high level of poverty among lone-parent families requires a whole Government approach
Here in Ireland is the high cost of childcare the big challenge for entering and/or staying in the workplace?
“One of them,” replies Maher. “Like anything, there’s a jigsaw but that’s definitely one big part of it. If you don’t have affordable and accessible childcare then entering or staying in work is going to be significantly harder.”
While there are significant subsidies available to low-income parents under the affordable childcare scheme since September, she says she hasn’t heard parents “gushing” about it. One problem is that they can only avail of the scheme if the childcare provider is both registered and willing to administer the process, as the IT system to enable parents to do it themselves is not there yet.
Bayliss says the scheme is geared to early years care, whereas lone parents with children aged seven-plus are much more likely to use childminders – the vast majority of whom can’t register, which means parents using them are not eligible for subsidies. Older children themselves don’t want to go to “creches” after school, she says.
The other big issue is housing. “We know lone parents have been disproportionately impacted by the homeless crisis,” says Maher. “Many of those homeless families are lone parents who are in work and trying to do their best but they don’t have a stable home environment.”
Her comments are echoed by Bayliss, who is alarmed at the increasing number of Spark members who have recently received notice to quit their private rented accommodation before the end of the year because landlords are selling up. So often lone parents are like “canaries down the mine”, she remarks, suggesting that the homeless crisis is going to be worse than ever by Christmas.
“People are afraid to commit to jobs because they don’t know where they’re going to be. And even those who are working currently are afraid they are going to lose their job.”
For all workplaces, staff coming and going costs money so focusing on what could increase employee retention makes sense to employers
It is so precarious for lone parents, Bayliss says. “You can work if you have got a childminder set up, who is reasonably priced and close to your child’s school; if you have got a job you can commute to quite quickly and get home quickly so you’re not leaving your child too long. Everything has to be in place to allow you to work. People have to move to wherever they can rent and that means they may end up having to give up jobs.”
One Family points out that tackling the high level of poverty among lone-parent families requires a whole Government approach - better financial supports, better access to childcare, better quality jobs, better access to education. Lone parents are four times as likely to be living in consistent poverty compared to two-parent households.
“If they are stuck in a low-paid job and access to education is being hampered by various anomalies in the system, then how can they ever improve their earning potential? They are essentially stuck in a working trap rather than a welfare trap,” says Maher.
Share the burden
Most working parents struggle, to some degree, to balance their earning and parenting responsibilities, but at least those with partners have somebody to share the burden. While all families need employers to support them in maintaining a work-life balance, the need is all the greater for lone parents.
It’s why one-parent family organisations are so keen to promote family-friendly policies to employers on the basis that happier employees are more productive and more likely to stay. For all workplaces, staff coming and going costs money so focusing on what could increase employee retention makes sense to employers, says Maher.
The online course developed to empower lone parents in work covers topics such as their entitlements, advice on how to approach a manger to look for flexibility and also tips on budgeting. It will go up on onefamily.ie in the autumn.
Meanwhile Conway, who found One Family’s “New Future” personal and professional development course to be a vital stepping stone in returning to work, feels very loyal to her employer who, she believes, has given her a chance to prove herself.
“I have OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder] and everything has to be clean and tidy, so I love what I do. I can do a lot more than just cleaning but for now this is helping me through my depression; it’s helping my children, so I am happy. I wouldn’t change what I am doing.”
She wants to try to motivate others who find themselves in a similar situation. She has written an "inspirational poem" called Never Give Up that she plans to publish on her YouTube channel, Sarah C Dublin Girl, to encourage people to seek help.
“I am sick of people giving up – even friends close to me. If I can do it with three kids, and I suffer mental health [issues], I tried to take my own life two years ago. If I can get through all of that anyone can.”
PARENTING ALONE IN NUMBERS
- 1 in 5 people in Ireland live in a one-parent family.
- 1 in 4 families with children is a one-parent family.
- 218,817 one-parent families in total.
- 125,840 have just one child.
- 84 per cent of lone parents are female.
- 47.8 per cent of lone parents in work (compared with 70.2 per cent for heads of two-parent families).
- 19.8 per cent of one-parent mothers are homemakers.
- 4 per cent of one-parent fathers are homemakers.
Source: 2016 Census