300,000 children likely to require back-to-school payments

Authorities struggling to keep up with additional claims for means-tested allowances

Some 51,000 additional claims have been received – an average of more than 5,300 per week – since application forms were issued in mid-June. Photograph: Getty Images

Some 51,000 additional claims have been received – an average of more than 5,300 per week – since application forms were issued in mid-June. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Welfare authorities are under pressure to process tens of thousands of applications from families for much-needed help with back-to-school costs.

The clothing and footwear allowance was paid automatically in mid-July to about 105,000 families, or almost 190,000 children, who received the benefit last year.

But authorities have received some 51,000 additional claims – an average of more than 5,300 per week – since application forms were issued in mid-June.

The Department of Social Protection is currently processing claims that it received on July 21st. A spokeswoman said that more than half of all new claims received since June have been finalised or are at an advanced stage.

The means-tested allowance is paid to parents of school-age children once a year. It is worth €100 for primary-school children and €200 for second-level students.

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton has said the €44 million set aside this year is a sign of the Government’s commitment to assisting families who are under financial pressure.

Steep costs

Despite the free education system, research indicates that families can face steep costs in the form of “voluntary contributions”, as well as for schoolbooks and uniforms.

In a research paper published earlier this summer, the children’s charity Barnardos estimated that the cost of school was €365 for senior infants, rising to €785 for first-year students. This excluded transport and extracurricular costs.

Fergus Finlay of Barnardos said the findings were a clear sign that our education system was underfunded, adding that there was an unfair expectation that parents would plug the gaps.

The back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance is paid to families who meet income thresholds. To be eligible this year for the allowance, a couple with two children should have an income of no more than €593.40 per week. For a lone parent with two children, the income level is €439.90.

The department is still accepting applications for the allowance, which can be paid up until the end of September.

The number of additional claims for the allowance peaked on July 21st, when more than 1,600 applications were received in a single day.

This compares with just over 600 received on Thursday last.

Reduced circumstances

The reduced financial circumstances of many families means that the payment is likely to be issued in respect of about 300,000 children by the end of September.

The scale of the numbers availing of the allowance is of little surprise to campaigners, given that official studies indicate that poverty and deprivation are widespread among low-income families.

The number of children being reared in poverty and going without basics, such as heating or warm clothing, rose to about 140,000, or 12 per cent of children, in the 2013 survey on living conditions by the Central Statistics Office, which was published earlier this year.

This was up from nearly 10 per cent in 2012 and almost double the 6 per cent rate seen in 2008.

The at-risk-of-poverty rate – which includes children in families where income is 60 per cent of the median – has declined, however, indicating that welfare payments are helping to lift many out of poverty.

* To request an application, applicants are advised to contact the Department of Social Protection at 1890-662244 or bscfa@welfare.ie