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14 January 2010 Edition

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Lone parents and the children of the nation

Frances Byrne of OPEN

Frances Byrne of OPEN


Among those vulnerable sectors of Irish society targeted in recent budgets, lone parents are in a particularly bleak position.  As Frances Byrne of OPEN, the national network of local lone-parent self-help groups in Ireland, points out, single parents are “the poorest of the poor.
“Single-parent families are four times more likely to live in poverty and that’s always been the case, even in the boom,” she says. Recent cuts have seen lone parents of, for instance one child, lose €426 out of a yearly income of €13,967.60.  The parent of that child will get €225.80 per week plus €150 per month in Child Benefit. So the lone parents of just one child can find themselves trying to survive on €262.80 per week, a circumstance which, as Frances points out, is unmanageable. “People can’t cope on that”, she says, “They borrow off one person to pay another, including moneylenders. Don’t forget that this came on top of the removal of the so-called Christmas bonus. Now people are facing into paying high fuel bills in the aftermath of a very cold period.”
By any standard, the cuts imposed on a single parent raising even one child are potentially crippling and ruthless, in that there is no opt-out – the child must be fed and clothed.  “One person remarked to me recently,” Frances recounts, “if your employers told you that they would have 4.1% taken off your wage you probably wouldn’t run out the door crying, but if they said ‘I’m taking €420 off you, you’d probably say – ‘no you’re not’.” Then imagine telling that to someone who hasn’t even €14,000 a year of an income to raise their child and survive themselves. It’s taking people a while to digest the consequences of the various cuts they’ve taken recently and I think it’s going to be a bit of a slow burner.  I think in the next few weeks the reality is going to dawn on people, particularly after the cold Christmas when the fuel bills start arriving.”
This is the reality for many lone parents, as Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh is aware. “The actual circumstances of lone parents are not really taken into proper account,” he says. “The cost of living for this sector hasn’t fallen, in that the basics on which they will spend their very limited income have remained fundamentally in the same price range as before. The cost of childcare places hasn’t dropped. Neither has the cost of public transport or medical expenses.”
“Things look set to get worse, especially if Mary Hanafin goes ahead with her idea of cutting the Lone Parent Allowance when a child reaches 13 years of age.” Last month Social and Family Affairs Minister Mary Hanafin mooted the prospect of phasing out the Lone Parent Allowance when a child reached 13 years of age. “Reducing the age cap for children entitled to child benefits from 18 years of age to 13 would have devastating affects” Ó Snodaigh says, “especially in terms of keeping children at school. Lone parent families tend to come from the more disadvantaged areas and poverty is an ongoing reality in these families’ lives. If these children are to have any chance of breaking out of the poverty cycle they must get an education. There are expectations on parents to contribute to the costs incurred by schools but lone parents just can’t afford to donate so the schools their children attend will remain ill-equipped and disadvantaged.”
Re-enter the dark tunnel and the cycle of disadvantage. Mary Hanafin’s argument for proposing a cut to the Lone Parents’ Allowance was based on the illinformed notion that continuing to pay the allowance to somebody until their child is 22 – if they are in full-time education – discourages lone parents from going out to seek employment. But as Frances Byrne says, “people on Lone Parents’ Allowance are allowed to work and earn a maximum of €146 a week without their Allowance being affected and 60% of people in receipt of this payment are already in employment.”  This refutes Mary Hanafin’s notion that these people don’t want to work, preferring instead to sit at home lavishing in life’s luxuries!
 Let’s face it, at an annual income of €191,417 in 2010, even after a cut, could we really expect Mary Hanafin to know about two people living on €262.80 per week? And would she even get out of bed for an additional €146 a week? As it turns out the Minister seems to have since retracted the proposal, saying the cuts wouldn’t arise in the foreseeable future. How far-sighted!
In a country where you can’t vote until you’re 18 or join the State army until you’re 17, it’s consoling to know that our children can continue a basic education beyond the age of 13 – at least for the foreseeable future!

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