Free meals every day for the Finnish kids. A packet of noodles for the Irish kids

No Child 2020: Ireland and Finland take different approaches to single working mothers

Children having lunch at school in Finland. Every child is entitled to a hot meal every day. Photograph:  Fishman Ullstein/Getty

Children having lunch at school in Finland. Every child is entitled to a hot meal every day. Photograph: Fishman Ullstein/Getty

 

No Child 2020 is a new initiative by The Irish Times, providing a sustained focus on child welfare and children’s issues over the coming year. We explore the problems facing children in Ireland today and offer solutions that would make this a better country to be a child.

When we consider the devastating impact poverty can have on children, inevitably we think of their family circumstances. Some children, and some families, are more likely to live with the privations inflicted by poverty – including inadequate food, lack of heat, second-hand clothes and the absence of such simple pleasures as an occasional meal out or membership of a sports club.

In Ireland 2017, while 3.9 per cent of homes with children and two parents were in the harshest consistent poverty, a staggering 20.7 per cent of homes headed by single-parents were.

While Miikkulainen’s children grow up in a country with a child poverty rate of 3.6 per cent, Corrigan’s are among the 18.4 per cent of Irish children in poverty

Looking at the lives of two single parents – one in Ireland and one in Finland, one in poverty and one not – makes clear that poverty is not just about income. It is also about the resources, supports, services and structures, or lack of these things,  that society puts around these families.

Kukka Miikkulainen, a separated mother of four children, aged six, 10, 12 and 18, lives in the Finnish capital, Helsinki.

With a Master’s degree, Kukka works in the science department at Aalto University in Espoo, an urban centre adjacent to Helsinki. She has a take-home pay of about €2,800 a month after paying taxes – income and municipal taxes and health insurance – of up to 56 per cent.

Though she describes her income as “quite low” and managing on it as “very tough”, Kukka Miikkulainen’s life and that of her children is dramatically different from that of Orla Corrigan, a single mother in rural Co Offaly.

While Miikkulainen’s children grow up in a country with a child poverty rate of 3.6 per cent, Corrigan’s are among the 18.4 per cent of Irish children in poverty.

A MOTHER’S LIFE IN IRELAND

Separated from her husband since 2015, Orla Corrigan works full-time as a nurse, has two daughters (aged six and eight) and relies on food parcels to get by. Her take-home income “on a good month” between wages, child maintenance and child benefit is about €2,880.

We are going to play it old-fashioned for the next few nights, and we use candles and cook beans on the stove in the sitting room. The girls think it’s great fun, but I know that won’t last for much longer

“The mortgage is €600 a month. That’s paid first. There are certain priorities. I have to keep a roof over our heads,” says Corrigan.

House insurance is €60 a month.

She does three or four “long days” a week – 12- or 13-hour shifts – dropping her daughters to a childminder, whom she pays €80 a day, at 7.20am and collecting them around 9pm. The cost is about €1,000 per month. She has to run a car, with the children’s school and her work a 30 km round-trip away in Tullamore. Petrol costs about €160 a month.

Orla Corrigan: Spends over €1,000 a month on childminding costs for her two daughters. “Electricity is a nightmare. I have a pre-pay meter and try to keep it going on €40 a week, but too often it runs out.” Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon
Orla Corrigan: Spends over €1,000 a month on childminding costs for her two daughters. “Electricity is a nightmare. I have a pre-pay meter and try to keep it going on €40 a week, but too often it runs out.” Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon

She is also paying off a loan taken out “during the boom” – €480 a month.

“So we’re left with maybe €580 a month. We start off with the bills. Electricity is a nightmare. I have a pre-pay meter and try to keep it going on €40 a week, but too often it runs out.

“I try to think outside the box, try to make it fun for the girls and say: ‘We are going to play it old-fashioned for the next few nights,’ and we use candles and cook beans on the stove in the sitting room. The girls think it’s great fun, but I know that won’t last for much longer, when they realise it’s not normal.

“The kettle is the hardest thing on the ESB, so I ration that. I haven’t used that dishwasher in years.”

Corrigan has a laundry backlog because she washes only the essential clothes. The tumble drier, she says, is a “no”.

“You’re trying to dry in front of the stove in the living-room. It’s the only room that’s going to be warm because the radiators just don’t get turned on. During the big snow last year we all slept in there.

“I buy oil by the drum. Every two weeks I put €14 of oil into the tank, for the hot water. I push it sometimes for three weeks, if we skip a few baths, and I use a sponge and cold water on the children.”

Once a month Corrigan gets a food parcel of dry goods like pasta, crackers, rice, canned food, tea and sugar, from the Ken Smollen Food Appeal, a Tullamore-based charity delivering parcels now to over 600 families each month throughout the midlands.

Corrigan frequently skips meals, telling the children she’s not hungry and living, she says, on toast and tea

“When Ken comes the girls get all excited, and say, ‘Mammy’s ordered food’. Ken started coming to me in 2017 when I was off sick for a long time. I saw something about him on Facebook... I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to feel I was begging for food. But it is what it is.”

Corrigan shops in Lidl for perishables, when the children are at school, keeping her spend below €60 a week.

“I’d go when they’re not with me, because it’s not fair on them. It would be cruel to them to be in there seeing all this food when they know it’s not going to be in their house. I’d go in and look for the cheapest possible, scanning every price. Mince is great. You can do a bolognese and get two dinners out of that. Potatoes, beans and sausages is a great one to fill them.”

Corrigan frequently skips meals, telling the children she’s not hungry and living, she says, on toast and tea.

There is no internet in the house, an expense she hopes to avoid for as long as possible. She cuts her own hair, washing it with washing-up liquid to save shampoo for her daughters. All her clothes, and many of the children’s, are from charity shops, with just underwear bought in retail shops.

She worries about money every day, describing it a “constant, constant stress”.

While she can just about make it month-to-month, she dreads her children being invited to birthday parties and having to provide a present, or having to see a GP at €50 a visit. The €200-plus cost of going back to school each August, car-tax, car insurance, television licence, Christmas and birthdays are other dreaded milestones.

“Money is 24/7 in my mind. Lying awake a night. I cry at night when the girls are in bed because I can’t let them know. They do know they don’t get anything but I don’t let them see the emotional effect it has on me.

“You feel that much a failure as a mother. I have considered sometimes that the kids would be better off without me. The guilt piles in and it’s a bit of your soul taken away every time you look at that hungry, sad face and all you have for them for dinner is a packet of noodles.

Asked what the family is rich in, she says: “Love. The three of us, we’re the best of friends, a team. My family are a great support.

“My focus in life is work and the girls and survival. It’s to make them feel loved and shielded from all this and keeping things as normal as possible. We do fun things. We play Ludo, play on the swings, and roast marshmallows.”

A MOTHER’S LIFE IN FINLAND

In Finland, even before her children were born, Kukka Miikkulainen was accessing state supports for her children. While pregnant with each she signed up with Kela – the Social Insurance Institution – both to receive ante-natal care and to get a “baby box” halfway through pregnancy.

The “box”, provided to every new mum since 1949, contains €200–€300 of essentials such as babygros, booties, socks, leggings, a snow-suit, nappies, blankets and information for new mothers. It also contains an infant-mattress, so the box can be used as baby’s first bed. This innovation has been credited in part for Finland having one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world.

Miikkulainen had 10 months’ paid maternity and parental leave, though many mothers take up to three years off at lower benefit rates. On returning to work she had a constitutional right to free or very affordable childcare, provided by the Helsinki municipality. She pays €280 a month for her six year-old, for weekdays from 7 am until 5 pm.

“That’s cheap compared to Ireland I guess but compared to Germany it’s not cheap,” she says. Finland invests 1.3 per cent of its GDP in early childhood education, compared with an OECD average of 0.8 per cent and an Irish investment of 0.5 per cent.

Kukka Miikkulainen: a separated mother of four children, aged six, ten, 12 and 18, lives in Helsinki. “The general benefits for every child are quite good, but if you are really struggling it’s not that great.”
Kukka Miikkulainen: a separated mother of four children, aged six, 10, 12 and 18, lives in Helsinki. “The general benefits for every child are quite good, but if you are really struggling it’s not that great.”

Finnish children can attend kindergarden and pre-school – free of charge or heavily subsidised – until they are six, beginning primary school aged seven.

At school, Miikkulainen’s children get a hot, nutritious meal daily. This has been the case across Finland since 1943. The thinking after the second World War was that the population had to be built up – educationally, professionally and nutritionally.

Women were facilitated, indeed expected, to work outside the home. Fundamental to this would be freeing them from the domestic sphere – here the state stepped in to ensure all children got a meal a day and a free, high-quality education no matter what their background.

During school holidays too, every child in Helsinki is entitled to a daily meal at one of the 65 municipal playgrounds, ensuring none experiences “holiday hunger”.

On a visit to Meilahti secondary school, in a socially mixed area of Helsinki, principal Riitta Erkinjutti tells how all books, after-school activities and meals are free to the 430 pupils.

Erkinjutti shows some of the classes. There are nine pupils in a chemistry class, 10 in a textiles class and 23 – the largest we visit – in a music class.

Additional support

Like others, the school has among its staff a counsellor, psychologist, social worker, doctor and nurse. These professionals meet weekly with teaching staff, “to discuss the kids and any we feel need additional support,” says Erkinjutti.

Most Finns whose income is stretched are entitled to a housing allowance whether they rent or own their home

“If a child needs more support on a regular basis with for example dyslexia, ADHD, difficulties at home or if they are absent too often that [support] is provided. The focus is always on the child and whatever is best for them.”

The school has an annual budget of €3.9 million, of which €2.5 million is accounted for by teachers’ salaries, and €1.02 million is rent and utilities, paid to the municipality. The remaining €400,000 is spent on equipment, books and food.

On the school menu the day The Irish Times visits is a vegetarian-only option – cauliflower cheese, potato croquettes, brown rice, salad, with fruit and yoghurt for dessert, and water or milk. The teachers eat the same menu, in the same dining hall.

Miikkulainen says the fact that her children get a hot meal is a “great help”. “The general benefits for every child are quite good, but if you are really struggling it’s not that great...The childcare cost is difficult, and housing costs in Helsinki are high.

“We have a four-bedroom apartment. The rent is €1,400 – half my salary. I get €350 [housing benefit] towards it.”

Most Finns whose income is stretched are entitled to a housing allowance whether they rent or own their home with amounts dependent on the income of, and number of people in, the household.

She gets maintenance from her ex-husband. This involves an annual appointment with Kela, the municipal social services, with her ex.

“They look at the salary of both parents and then they calculate. Then you have to apply for some benefit from the state...which is €154 a month per child.”

She and her children have access to free GP and medical care and in the summer she is entitled to a “summer bonus” – half a month’s salary – to help with the additional cost of children being off school.

Last summer they went to Germany and the Netherlands to visit family.

“It was really nice, even though I could have used that money to pay some bills,” she smiles.

The municipality provides activities outside school for younger children, under the mantra , “every child has a right to a hobby”.

Miikkulainen is unimpressed by this when put to her, saying there are just “some activities” and often those that children want, like ice-hockey classes, are unavailable and cost up to €200 a term privately.

“So there are lots of kids who don’t have a hobby after school.”

She also says that many essential services, such as daycare, are far better provided in Helsinki than in other parts of Finland, where single mothers struggle more than she does, to access education and employment.

Hot meal

For Orla Corrigan, services such as those Kukka Miikkulainen’s family enjoy, would be transformative.

“If there was a hot meal in school, that would be absolutely amazing,” says Corrigan. “You’d know they’re going to get a meal and that takes another expense out of lunches.

“Affordable or even free childcare? Sure then you could work, pay the bills. If I didn’t have that huge cost I’d be able to pay my bills, tax my car, be able to take them out or maybe send them to art class.

“People don’t talk about how much they’re struggling because of the shame. That’s where I get very upset because there are so many disadvantaged children in this country and it’s hidden. I don’t know anyone else in my situation, but there has to be I know. I work full-time. I can’t work anymore and I still feel like I’m drowning.

“Families on low incomes, we need a bit more support. A fuel allowance or a medical card even.”

Asked her response to the prevailing narrative that the recession is over, that the country is booming, she half-smiles.

“The real Ireland is not booming. Those saying it, they might have their painted picture, or they have their blinkers on and don’t want to hear about the poverty of people like me and my children. But it’s very real, very real when you’re going through it.”

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