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Penalising lone-parent employees

By Caroline Fahy.

In July 2014, over 5,000 recipients of the One Parent Family Payment (OFP) lost the payment. This was as a result of the decision announced in Budget 2012 to restrict eligibility for the OFP to those parenting alone whose youngest child is aged seven or under.

Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton TD, highlighted two reasons for the decision. The first was the high rate of poverty among lone parents in spite of considerable expenditure on social welfare. The second was the desire to support lone parents getting employment, in order to tackle poverty.

One-parent families have the highest rates of poverty and deprivation of any family type in Ireland with 29% at risk of poverty and almost 50% experiencing basic deprivation. The need to address poverty among those parenting alone is clear.

However, this measure will actually make it more difficult for them to take up employment, education or training opportunities. This is because they will no longer have access to the features of the OFP which were designed with the additional needs of those parenting alone in mind.

In response to this concern Minister Burton stated at the time that the change would not be implemented before the introduction of a safe, affordable and accessible childcare system, similar to that available in Scandinavian countries.

There has been some increased provision of childcare and afterschool care places targeted at low income families. However, provision still falls far short of a Scandinavian system of childcare. In spite of this, the changes to the OFP have now proceeded as planned.

The loss of the OFP will be most keenly felt by lone parents who are already in employment. A lone parent, by way of example, who is earning €200 per week net income and is combining part-time employment with the OFP and Family Income Supplement will have a loss of income of around €70 per week.

This is in spite of an increase in the Family Income Supplement payment, which, while vitally important, is not enough to compensate fully for the loss of the OFP.

It is likely that this loss of income will make it impossible for some lone parents to stay in employment. This cut comes on top of the other significant cuts to incomes and services that have particularly targeted lone parents.

Lone parents who wish to take up education or training opportunities will also struggle due to the loss of the OFP. The payment can be claimed by those parenting alone and undertaking education or training courses, along with a student maintenance grant. Those who lose the payment but who wish to take up education or training will now have to claim the Back to Education Allowance.

This cannot be claimed at the same time as a student maintenance grant. This further disadvantages lone parents on low incomes with limited resources and high levels of caring responsibilities. It will be too much for many who will now not take up education and training opportunities as a result.

The loss of the OFP when the youngest child turns seven years old will undermine Government’s stated objective of supporting those in jobless households and assisting families in low paid work. The development of a system of quality childcare and afterschool care that is affordable and accessible would have supported the Government’s objective of tackling poverty and joblessness.

Such a system would have provided real support to all parents, particularly those with low earnings potential, to enter and remain in the labour market.

Long term, passive recipiency of a social welfare payment is in no one’s best interests. However, penalising those lone parents already in employment and making it more difficult for those who might be considering taking up employment, education or training makes no sense. •