Here’s how the cycle goes for a rising number of lone parents – you work 19 hours a week whilst retaining your state subsidies, if you take on more work you lose the subsidies but the money you make working isn’t enough to cover your childcare and living costs.
What to do? Scrap your career and live off state contributions, or fall into the poverty trap? Taryn de Vere talks to women trapped in this cruel, demotivating and vicious cycle.
Lone-parent families make up one quarter of all families in Ireland, yet are 2.5 times more likely to be experiencing deprivation than the rest of the population. Lone parent families also now make up almost 60% of the homeless figures.
Since 2013 the Government has been steadily decreasing the amount of supports available to lone parents in reforms that have alternated between dramatic and gradual.
In 2015 Ireland became the only country in the world to introduce a work-activation program for lone parents that pushed lone parents out of the workforce.
The state was telling lone parents that they weren’t considered to be lone parents once their youngest turned 7, as presumably 7 year olds can raise themselves.
Announcing the “incentivisation scheme”, which the Department of Social Protection declared as “progressive”, then Tánaiste Joan Burton told the Dáil that she would only introduce the changes if there was a “credible and bankable commitment” for an improved childcare system. Burton also claimed that lone parents who work 19 hours a week “will be far better off”.
The “incentivisation” scheme consisted of a new policy which meant that when the youngest child of a lone parent turned 7 the lone parent was no longer entitled to a “Lone Parent’s Payment” and was moved to other, smaller payments. In effect the state was telling lone parents that they weren’t considered to be lone parents once their youngest turned 7, as presumably 7 year olds can raise themselves.
In the case of many working lone parents, their payment changed to a combination of F.I.S (Family Income supplement – meant to “supplement” the wages of low-income earners) and B.T.W.F.D (Back To Work Family Dividend), which is a payment that is given for 2 years only.
In their first year working, lone parents receive the full amount. In the second year their money is halved, and in the third year they receive no BTWFD at all. The problem with this is that the Government makes it very difficult for lone parents to earn any extra money while on F.I.S.
I couldn’t risk the loss in income so, very reluctantly, I refused the work.
Lone parent Anna from Donegal works 19 hours a week on minimum wage.
“I was offered some well-paid, short term freelance work that would’ve given me great experience and allowed me to possibly move up the career ladder, but the way the Social Welfare system is designed if I accepted the work it would’ve meant my payments for the following year would have been significantly decreased.”
Anna receives F.I.S, which is a top-up payment for low income earners. F.I.S is calculated based on the previous year’s earnings. This means if people are offered one-off extra work and they take it they will have their F.I.S payment decreased for a whole year – the assumption being that they will earn as much again that year.
“If I was on my own I would’ve taken that risk but I have kids to provide for and I can’t know if I’ll be offered that work again in the future. I couldn’t risk the loss in income so, very reluctantly I refused the work. The rules of F.I.S make it extremely difficult to take on any extra work, even if I’m offered overtime I say no, as while I could very much do with the money I don’t know if I’ll be offered the overtime again next year. I have to think a year ahead to what my payments will be then.”
I worry about money a lot and the worst bit is that I cannot earn any extra money as whatever I earn will be taken off my payments for the next 12 month period.
Anna says when she first got a job 6 years ago, prior to the Government’s changes, she was much better off. “When I got a part time job my wages combined with lone parent’s payment and F.I.S made working worthwhile. Since the changes to my payment once my youngest turned 7 I’m now down €160 a week. Also as I’m no longer on Lone Parent’s Payment I don’t get the extra things like the fuel allowance so I’ve been further penalised by the changes.”
Anna says that losing that much money from her household income every week has added a huge financial strain to her life.
“I do worry about money a lot and the worst bit is that I cannot earn any extra money as whatever I earn will be taken off my payments for the next 12 month period. So I’m stuck in a poverty trap, my money from the Government is decreasing all the time. Meanwhile I’m literally being offered extra work and I’m unable to take it because of how inflexible the department of social protection is. They don’t seem to have any awareness of the ways in which lone parents need to work, flexible, one-off or freelance work would suit so many lone parents but it’s made almost impossible for us to accept such work.”
Despite no improvements in childcare supports for lone parents as promised by Joan Burton the harsh new reforms were pushed though. Working parents soon found they were not in fact “far better off”. Parents who were working less than 19 hours a week were hit hard by the changes, as F.I.S is only paid to people who work between 19 and 39 hours a week. Some of these people reported having to leave their jobs entirely after losing the income supports they previously had.
Flexible, one-off or freelance work would suit so many lone parents but it’s made almost impossible for us to accept such work.
By 2015 41,020 of lone parents had their lone parents payment removed due to the “activisation” changes. According to Lone Parent Advocacy group S.P.A.R.K, this change lead to an immediate decrease of €53 per week for working lone parents.
The changes introduced a new payment that decreases over a two year period, eventually leaving some working lone parents up to €200 worse off than they were before the reforms were introduced.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect is that the Department of Social Protection knew that their proposed changes would make lone parents worse off prior to introducing them. The Department had commissioned a study to examine international best practice models and possible impacts of the changes in Ireland.
The report by researchers’ Dr Michelle Millar and Dr Rosemary Crosse examined international models of improving outcomes for lone parent families and compared them to the way lone parents are treated in Ireland. They found that Ireland was the only country in the world that introduced a work activation programme for lone parents that actually forced some parents out of work.
I was on the verge of a mental breakdown if I’m honest… The system is trying so hard to stop fraud, that its actually blocking the people who genuinely need help
The research found that there was a, “distinct lack of awareness of the reality of the lives of lone parents in Ireland in the present day”. Lone parents interviewed for the study said that they felt the welfare system was designed to “support two-parent families” and that there was a lack of recognition of the capacity and challenges faced by lone parents.
The study found that the Department of Social Protection’s activation policies lead to “in-work poverty” for some lone parents with “53% of lone parents surveyed reported being financially worse off since the reforms” and 63% of those in full time employment unable to afford three or more items on the deprivation list. (Indecon 2017)
Aine is a mother of several teenage children. She has struggled with the changes to her payment.
“It seems the older your child gets and especially when their needs are greater, the more they cut assistance. I work 20 hrs a week, in a minimum wage job which is all that’s available in my rural area.”
Under the reforms Aine’s part time low-paid work disqualifies her for many of the supports she was previously was entitled to. “I no longer qualify because I did what was required and went out to work. I worked out that even with me working, my income has dropped around €5000 a year since they changed my payments.”
It’s a minefield, it’s incredibly stressful and we’re just trying to do our best with what we have.
Niamh became a lone parent while pregnant. She worked on call as a social care worker however the changeable nature of her work hours meant she needed to rely on social welfare some weeks.
“I was left with 80 Euros per week to live on. They had based my payment on a good months work, not taking any account for how my work fluctuates. The casual worker payment would have suited my needs better, but they said I couldn’t do this. My rent was really cheap at 100 Euros but sure I couldn’t even afford that.”
Niamh ended up having to leave her work as she couldn’t live on only 80 euros a week. She said she found the whole process of dealing with Social Welfare incredibly stressful.
“I was on the verge of a mental breakdown if I’m honest… The system is trying so hard to stop fraud, that its actually blocking the people who genuinely need help. I’m not surprised how many women leave work. It’s a minefield, it’s incredibly stressful and we’re just trying to do our best with what we have.”
€60 is the difference between being able to heat the house and be warm, it’s the difference between being able to eat healthily and having to cut meat from the weekly budget because I can’t afford it.
Mother of two Sarah from Co. Offaly would love to work. She is angry about how hard Social Welfare make it to take up paid employment.
“I never thought I’d be a single parent. The hardest thing about being a single parent though is trying to get out of the poverty trap. I have a level 8 degree and a level 9 specialist diploma and I want to use them…as soon as you get a job it affects your social welfare and I always seem to be worse off every time I work. Childcare is never taken into account when you’re showing your income to welfare. Neither is being able to afford a car to travel to work (I live in a rural area).”
Sarah was recently offered a job but due to the moving costs, rent and childcare costs Sarah realised that she would be €60 worse off if she accepted the position.
“€60 was too much to loose out on every week. It’s the difference between being able to heat the house and be warm, it’s the difference between being able to eat healthily and having to cut meat from the weekly budget because I can’t afford it. As it is, I very seldom go out, I don’t treat myself, everything goes towards the kids. I’d love to afford swimming lessons but I just can’t afford things like that.”
The systems supposed to be encouraging and incentivising parents back into the workforce are forcing them out of work
We have a unique situation in Ireland where the systems supposed to be encouraging and incentivising parents back into the workforce are instead penalising working parents and, in some cases, forcing them out of work. The Department of Social Protection’s own study recommendations said that consequences of the policies, “which could result in a decrease in income for lone parent families should be rectified to ensure that being in work leads to these families being better off”
Pressure must be put on the Minister for Social Protection to ensure the punitive policies are reversed and actual incentives and supports are made available for lone parents. I suggest a task force made up of lone parents who have been directly harmed by the policies should be involved in any decisions made about future schemes. Many lone parents want to work outside the home and would relish the opportunity to improve their financial and career situations, so why are we making it so hard for them to do so?
About the Author
Taryn de Vere is a writer, a colourful fashion activist and a mother of 5.