Take Ten for One-parent Families

In the past few weeks lone parents across Ireland have been thinking about and discussing the upcoming General Election and what a change in government could mean for our families. While the broader economic issues remain a concern - for lone parents, especially those who are unemployed, surviving on a day-to-day basis is becoming more and more difficult. By Frances Byrne of OPEN

There has been a sense that our families, who are statistically the poorest in Ireland, have been continuously marginalised through the implementation of policies, even during the boom, which have failed to take account of the lived experience of one-parent families. In an effort to capture the real concerns felt by lone parents, OPEN has facilitated a number of online and offline discussions on the issues closest to the hearts of our families.

 These have emerged as:

  • Education
  • Health
  • Housing
  • Children
  • Gender Discrimination
  • Employment.

Further work has taken place to develop questions for lone parents to use at the doorsteps and in local hustings: ‘Take 10’ for One-parent Families -Door OPENers for Election 2011 Candidates.

We are also analysing the manifestos of the political parties to see if we can ascertain the responses to the key questions:

  • How will you end the barriers that Rent Supplement creates for lone parents who want to get a job?
  • How will you ensure that the Rental Accommodation Scheme is fully implemented?
  • How will you reform the housing list points system so that smaller families are not discriminated against?
  • What do you think can be done to reduce anti-social behaviour in housing estates?
  • How will you address the barriers that lone parents face in trying to access further education?
  • Will you ensure that the Back to School Clothing & Footwear Allowance adequately covers the real costs of education?
  • What will you do to address the pressures put on lone parents by the annual voluntary contribution which schools request from families?
  • How do you propose to ensure that the health service is accessible to those on low incomes?
  • Will you maintain the current rates of social welfare?
  • What will you do to make sure that those earning the National Minimum Wage stay out of poverty?

We haven’t heard much about these issues yet. Our election debates, not just the televised leaders’ ones, have focused on our economic recovery, which is of course vital. This lack of focus on what are ‘bread and butter’ issues for our families raises an underlying concern which has emerged for OPEN about our public discourse since the onset of the current economic crisis.

In the most recent budget it was deemed acceptable to cut most social welfare payments by another €8 per week, which meant that along with cuts to child benefit, an unemployed lone parent with one child loses over €530 income this year. It was not deemed acceptable to cut the old age pension. In the Dáil debates and those on our airwaves that followed, mention was made of the cruelty perpetrated on carers, those on the blind payment and others with disabilities. The unemployed and those on the One-parent Family Payment did not figure in the contributions decrying the cuts to means-tested weekly payments. Let’s be clear, OPEN was and is utterly opposed to any social welfare cuts. We believe that the poor have paid, and paid handsomely, in previous budgets, and should be protected from any further cuts. In fact we want to see the reversal of the cruelest cut of all – the abolition of the ‘Christmas bonus’. If Fianna Fail & the Greens had not abolished the Combat Poverty Agency, OPEN would seek funding for research into the impact of this stingy and stinging cut.

"None of our largely male and middle-aged commentariat appeared on the panels of recent current affairs programmes to discuss exploitative moneylenders"

In spite of no longer having the availability of a funding scheme to commission an independent, vigorous study involving people living in poverty, we have been watching the impact of the cuts unfold among our families and the communities we live in. One of those is the sobering news revealed in the Irish Times in December last that in 2010 an estimated €113 million was out on loan to poor households and families from legal moneylenders, up from €90 million in 2008. The largest legal moneylender here saw its Irish customer base grow to 88,000, in 2010 from 75,000 the previous year. If there was collective fury about this, we missed it. The article also noted that ‘Annual interest rates of between 23% and 188% are allowed’ – again none of our largely male and middle-aged commentariat appeared on the panels of various current affairs programmes to discuss this. When the biggest mortgage lender here recently raised its rates by 1% - disgracefully so – there was the usual hue and cry. Nothing changed but there was at least uproar at the unfairness. Similarly there was wall to wall outrage about the VHI increases and it has also featured in the election debates and in manifestos.

The focus in our public discourse on cuts, fee increases and other changes which impact on middle class people only is really worrying; there is a pandering nod to the suffering of those on disability and carers’ payments but otherwise the poor are ignored or worse excluded from discussions which characterise our citizens as tax payers. Increasingly when the word welfare appears in a political document or discussion it is immediately followed by the word fraud. Yet again, we want to be clear – OPEN deplores welfare fraud. We need a robust social welfare system. Nobody needs it to be robust more than those who have to use it.

In various media, and not just at budget or election time, we have also witnessed a growing language of the deserving and undeserving poor: Carers are seen as saints (itself a deeply patronising portrayal) and lone parents as spongers. Ironically each of these groups does the state some service with our underpaid, unvalued ‘love labour’.

Sadly even some of those seeking vital reform of our political system want ‘qualified professionals’ at our Cabinet table and in whatever House replaces the Seanad. What about the experts among us who have learned to navigate an at times hostile social support system? What about those who manage their ever diminishing income so that it stretches to feed and heat their loved ones? They have something to offer too.

But forget the Cabinet, unemployed lone parents in OPEN would love to just contribute to our economy and to ideas that will shape our future society. They hate being regarded as lazy spongers. They’d happily pay their taxes if they had employment. Unlike wealthy tax exiles whose views are sought and widely acclaimed in spite of not paying any income tax here! The most recent example of treatment of the opinions of Mr. Dermot Desmond is a case in point.

Lone parents who balance work and family life have plenty to say too; for the record in spite of barriers like the lack of affordable childcare or proper rural transport, 60% of lone parents on the main social welfare payment work outside the home. And many of the 90,000 others who receive no welfare payment are also part- or full-time employees.

It is the responsibility of us all as citizens to refuse to entertain a public discourse which excoriates people who, owing to their poverty, don’t somehow qualify as full participants in fixing our economy, while idolising those who are so well off they can choose not to pay their way.

The challenge for the next government is to create a recovery where equality and justice prevail for all. The challenge for us all is to construct a society where all voices are heard in our public discourse.


OPEN has issued ‘Take Ten for One-parent Families’, the questions which lone parents want to ask election candidates and it is available on www.oneparent.ie. [from 18.02.11) Its analysis on the party manifesto positions on the issues of importance to one-parent families will follow on Monday [21.02.11].

[Image top via drinksmachine on Flickr]