By Mary Murphy.
Changes to the One Parent Family Payment (OFP) are now coming to a head and are causing stress and panic for many families. Over half a million people live in families headed by a lone parent. These families are much more likely to experience poverty and social exclusion. In 2013, 63% of them experienced enforced deprivation. The Government needs immediately to review the overall policy direction.
Five principles should inform the way forward: participation of lone parents in the policy process; investment in affordable and accessible childcare; greater regulation of low paid and low hours employment; ensuring no working lone parents are financially worse off as a result of allegedly pro-employment reforms; and ensuring lone parents and their children have equal care and parenting options as parents and children in other family formations.
It was in Budget 2012 that the Government announced plans to restrict eligibility for the OFP to those parenting alone whose youngest child is under age seven. The same budget initiated phased reductions of income disregards for lone parents who had some paid work to equal those of people on Job Seekers Allowances (JSA). This would reduce the income disregard from €150pw to €60pw. Subsequent reactions and protests from lone-parents groups forced the Government to reconsider the severity of these decisions.
In 2013 the Government introduced a Job Seeker’s Transition Allowance (JSTA) scheme for lone parents with children aged seven to 14 years. Then in November 2014 the Government abandoned the final €30 euro cut to the lone parent disregard. Over the same period, despite Government recognition that any structural changes to lone parents payments needed complementary investment in afterschool childcare, only €14m was invested in the provision of childcare. After-school and holiday-time childcare remain inadequate, inaccessible and unaffordable.
These changes mitigated the severity of what was planned, but they did not shift the overall policy direction. In 2015 the Government will effectively end access to the OFP for lone parents whose youngest child is seven or over. Up to 40,000 lone parents are expected to transition from OFP this year with 30,200 moving on the 2nd July 2015.
Those lone parents whose youngest child is between seven and thirteen will be on the Job Seekers Transition Allowance with the same means testing rules as the job seekers payment, an exemption from having to seek full-time work and the accommodation of part-time work. Those whose youngest child is fourteen or older are placed on the Job Seekers Allowance. They are obliged to seek and accept full-time work under the same conditions and rules as apply to single people with no children.
Analysis by One Family and SPARK shows that these changes will make thousands of working lone parents financially worse off. Some of the financial losses for working lone parents are so significant that many are likely to give up part-time employment. The changes have thrown up many anomalies which the Government has had to resolve. Lone parents with caring responsibilities will now remain eligible for a half-rate Carer’s Allowance. Those transferred to Job Seeker’s Transition will be able to access SUSI (Student Universal Support in Ireland) maintenance supports.
Other anomalies are likely to emerge including in the treatment of access to back to education allowances, in self-employment and in enterprise supports. The intended and unintended consequences of this ill-though- through labour market policy will cause lone parents to give up work or full-time education.
Recent research (Jaerling et al.) suggests governments cannot solely rely on labour-market participation to reduce lone parent family poverty. Realistically lone parent families have only half the time and resources to do the same amount of domestic, parenting and care work as a two parent family. Practical paid-employment options are often limited to part-time and local employment which are likely to be low paid.
Without the addition of measures targeted directly at single parents’ income, the risks of single parenting are likely to become even more significant. All the evidence suggests lone parents in Ireland want to work. Retaining the One Parent Family Payment would enable the Government to target support in a way that promotes, but does not exclusively rely on, paid employment as the mechanism to address poverty. •