Free childcare urged for all one-parent families

Oireachtas hears child poverty caused by ‘structural barriers’ to education and jobs

Free childcare should be provided to all one-parent families as an immediate measure to tackle child poverty, an Oireachtas committee heard on Tuesday.

Karen Kiernan, chief executive of One Family and member of the National One-Parent Family Alliance (NOPFA) was one of several who told the Oireachtas committee on children there was a need for "public provision of childcare and free childcare [to be] available to all one-parent families".

The committee, which was discussing child poverty, heard calls for the establishment of a unit to tackle it located within the Department of the Taoiseach, as has been done in New Zealand. There prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who is also minister for child poverty reduction, leads the child wellbeing and poverty reduction group.

Tricia Keilthy, head of social justice and policy with the Society of St Vincent de Paul and also a member of the NOPFA, said New Zealand had also legislated to ensure all budget decisions were aligned to "comprehensively address child poverty".

It was a “recent initiative” and its impact had yet to be determined, she said.

Ongoing antipathy

“But we need implementation [of policies to address child poverty] to be driven from the top and reaching down to our local authorities”.

Ms Kiernan said it was in households headed by lone parents, Travellers, Roma and disabled people where "most poor children" could be found. "Focus on them," she recommended. "There's an opportunity to do something for them, by focusing on them."

The Government should “remove structural barriers” to these parents accessing education and employment. “So it’s about making work pay – letting them get into education, ensuring there is a system to ensure child maintenance is paid. A lot of the problems are at a national policy level.”

She said she sensed an ongoing antipathy to one-parent families. “They can’t achieve what two-parent families can. They need additional supports. It should be okay morally, ethically, socially, politically to do that. We still have some mentality from the culture of mother and baby homes around people parenting on their own that is very unhelpful, and can block and get in the way of progress.”

Welfare rates

Ms Keilthy said social welfare rates were so low that families could “barely stay afloat”. She called for all welfare rates to be benchmarked against the minimum essential standard of living, as calculated annually by the Vincentian Partnership.

“At the moment the gap between social welfare for a one-parent family with two children [between €279 and €293 depending on children’s ages] and the cost of a minimum standard is €82 a week. So that parent has to borrow, go into debt or cut back to make ends meet. But if we had a system that addressed poverty, it would give people the basis to access opportunities . . . and allow families plan for the future.”

Danielle McKenna, manager of the Rialto Youth Project in Dublin, said children’s experiences in the education system and of poor quality, overcrowded housing were exacerbating their poverty.

“Often we talk to young people about education [and] they describe feelings of powerlessness, feeling left behind . . . We see children who are clouded in shame, in a shame that does not belong to them or their families. It is a shame that belongs to the State which is perpetuating inequality towards working-class families and their children.”