Archive for October, 2010

Are One Parent Families the Undeserving Poor?

Frances Byrne is CEO of OPEN. A former board member of the European Anti-poverty Network (Ireland) and past Deputy Chairwoman of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Frances has worked in OPEN since 1999 and has represented one-parent families in national and international fora. In the 1990s she worked for a local partnership company and one of OPEN’s local lone parent groups. Prior to that Frances worked at an NGO in San Francisco which advocated for residents of nursing homes.

A very affable and well-qualified researcher was at pains to point out to OPEN recently that yet more figures showing the poverty of one-parent families in fact reflect the relative position of those families measured against those with two parents.  They (the numbers) needed to be understood in terms of the importance of the presence (or absence) of a second breadwinner.  In other words, “Your people will always be behind everyone else in income terms and your organisation needs to lobby for proper, public services to help redress the balance.” On the face of it, advice which OPEN could/should accept, however the picture about our families is far more complex and has to be seen through a peculiarly Irish lens.

A sweep through the history of the income support payments to our families is one which is fraught with reminders of ‘the way we were’ as a society – the Deserted Wives Benefit, the Prisoner’s Wives Allowance, the Unmarried Mothers Allowance were all designed to meet specific needs, undoubtedly by a caring system attempting to respond appropriately to observable poverty. Their titles served to identify their recipient’s circumstances and to reinforce the economic dependence of women on men.  The payments were eventually amalgamated into the Lone Parents Allowance in 1990 and then re-branded and reformed as the One-parent Family Payment (OFP) in 1997.  The payment is neither gender-specific nor revealing of the personal history of the claimant and is also paid to widows and widowers with dependent children. It is important to note though that there has remained the concept of ‘an adult dependent’ in Jobseekers payments.

The Department proposed further reforms to the OFP in 2006 and these have been painfully slow in getting implemented and have been themselves subject to change. For example the ‘Brennan proposals’ recommended the introduction of a Parental Allowance for all low income families, regardless of marital status of parent(s); this has now been abandoned by government, for economic reasons, although it was favoured by the current Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection in its most recent report.  As things stand from April of 2011 until 2016 the Department will phase in an age limit (14 years) for the youngest child for those eligible for the OFP.  Although the late Minister Brennan included all parents, no matter what their relationship or marital status, Minister Hanafin, followed by the current Minister introduced a caveat: the new system will apply to all new claimants from next year except those who have been bereaved, who will continue to be eligible if their youngest child is older than 14 but not over 18.

OPEN was informed that this was an act of compassion. Indeed it was originally intended to include only those who had been previously married. Ultimately in the Bill which passed this summer it was extended to unmarried partners too.  It is important to point out that this was not requested by any NGO working on these issues.

The decision to extend compassion to the bereaved but not to those whose partner had been imprisoned, who had separated or who had been deserted was not on foot of intense lobbying. It was put in place simply to bring meaning to a view about deserving and undeserving families within the Department, we assume?

Views like these are not confined to government departments.  Mike Soden, formerly of the Bank of Ireland, now of the Central Bank Commission decided for reasons which are not clear to call repeatedly in media interviews for the abolition of social welfare payments to unmarried lone parents.  Mr. Soden presented his case without once using accurate facts and figures or on any occasion actually explaining how or where he received the expertise, wisdom or indeed the mandate to make such pronouncements.

OPEN, and others, have been at pains to communicate for years the true picture about one-parent families, all of our families.  It is complex but the facts are readily available from the Department of Social Protection, the Central Statistics Office, the Office of the Minister for Children & Young People and others. For example: less than 3% of those on social welfare are aged under 20; 59% of unmarried lone parents were in a committed relationship/co-habiting during their pregnancy; 58% of us have just one child and I could go on.

What seems to be at the core of the Department’s ‘compassion clause’ and perhaps inside the mind of the former banker is the notion of ‘choice’; that somehow if you choose lone parenthood, you are not blameless, so why should you receive state support?  If we follow this logic, then lots of people who set up home with someone they had doubts about, who then have children should not receive any or as much income support as others.  Is this really what we want? A social welfare system that interferes in people’s lives to satisfy itself in some vague, moral sense that the recipient’s family deserves support?  In our capitalist society we want a nanny state for some people then?

Returning to the friendly researcher’s advice about services; undoubtedly, as has been shown in countries where child poverty rates are low, the correct policy mix must include income supports and public services which are of high quality and universally available and availed of.  In Ireland we have however gone down a different road in terms of income support and therefore we have a system which has developed from the notion of a male breadwinner, and from that fall all kinds of anomalies and implicit notions of dependence and entitlement, or lack of.

Hand in hand we have not seen the proper public provision of services like early education & childcare as has been the case in other European countries, while here we favoured private service provision in the context of a low tax economy.

Late in the Celtic Tiger era, there were some efforts to fund community childcare, on which poorer families now rely heavily in our most disadvantaged areas with little or no middle class families using them – this is NOT the Nordic model!

This means that in our current context as both income and services get squeezed, the poorest families will suffer the brunt of what lies ahead.  OPEN’s concern is that we have already seen attempts in policy provision and in public discourse (on the shows on which Mr. Soden appeared, he received many supportive e-mails and texts) to divide the poor and those who rely on state supports from each other as well as from the beleaguered ‘tax payer’.  This is almost bound to worsen as the budget date nears.  For the record everyone who pays an electricity, phone or gas bill is a tax payer. As for PAYE, as the official statistics show, more than half of lone parents receive no weekly social welfare payment and of those who do, more than half work outside the home – evidence of a high motivation to move families out of poverty and to contribute to our society.

The most important statistic about our families which should inform policy development as well as public debate is this: 65% of child poverty in the Republic of Ireland is in one-parent families.  These are the children who should not be forgotten when decisions are made about our country’s finances.  These families do not deserve judgement or warrant blame because they are led by a lone parent, (previously married or not) or a poor parent, or a badly educated parent.  These families need support and solidarity, especially during an economic crisis.

OPEN is the national network of one-parent families. The organisation provides a range of development programmes and represents one-parent families in social partnership and elsewhere.  OPEN was established in 1994; member groups now support between 10,000-15,000 one-parent families per year.  The organisation is led by a Board made up exclusively of lone parents. Visit


Event Notice: Nationwide Skills Seminars on Influencing EU Policy and Identifying Funding

As part of the Communicating Europe Initiative, the European Anti Poverty Network Ireland will organise a series of skills seminars for community and voluntary organisations in November 2010. The seminars will include inputs from a range of experts on influencing and connecting with European policy and politics. The seminars will also provide expert advice on making use of European funding and grants. Participation is completely free but limited to 50 per event.

Click here for a programme and to register!

New Relationship Urgently Needed Between Government & Community Sector

Ann Irwin is the Coordinator of the Community Workers Cooperative and Aiden Lloyd is the Director of the European Anti-Poverty Network Ireland. Both organisations are members of the Ireland in Social Europe partnership, an initiative to raise awareness around the social aspects of European policy. This article was written to coincide with a seminar on poverty and social exclusion, held in Donegal on 28th September.

Since the 1991 census was carried out, County Donegal has been consistently ranked as the local authority area with the highest levels of deprivation in the state. Even before the economic crash, Donegal suffered from higher than average poverty levels and high unemployment. In 2006, Donegal had the highest level of unemployment in the state and the lowest disposable income per person in the state at €17,252

Cuts to supports, such as the funding of community development organisations and social inclusion programmes, will further exacerbate poverty and inequality levels. These policy decisions will have immediate, tangible and deeply destructive consequences.

Problems with public services that existed even in good times, such as poor housing provision and unequal access to (and outcomes from) health and education services, will be exacerbated and are likely to become more visible in the form of crime, anti-social behaviour, drug abuse and the fragmentation and degeneration of communities and neighbourhoods.

2010 is the EU designated Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion. The intention of the Year is to renew the focus on poverty and social exclusion. In June, European leaders confirmed that poverty reduction will – for the first time – be a headline goal for the European Union in the next decade. The EU’s roadmap for the next ten years, Europe 2020, commits to reducing the numbers of people living in poverty by 20 million by 2020. The success of that strategy will depend on innovative and ambitious thinking at national level.

At least 177,000 Irish people (over 4.2% of the Irish population) live their lives in consistent poverty. Similarly, nearly 620,000 (14.4%) people are at risk of poverty, and according to recent statements from the ESRI, when it comes to poverty and inequality, Ireland compares unfavourably not only with its prosperous EU neighbours but also with a number of new member states.

If we are to prevent sharp increases in poverty and social exclusion in Donegal and throughout the state, it is vital that resources and attention is directed towards protecting vital services, investing in employment and training, and supporting community development.

Ireland has a substantial track record in pioneering innovative programmes capable of mobilising disadvantaged communities to challenge their exclusion and make demands on policy makers, departments and statutory agencies. These programmes have been lauded by the OECD and the European Commission as models of good practice, and they have been adapted for use in many European countries. It is clear that there was a tremendous benefit from our belated realisation that those who experience disadvantage are best placed to advise on its eradication. We learned that community development was the best and most cost effective mechanism to empower and mobilise this participation, and we know that targeting ensured the inclusion and participation of the most marginalised in programmes and initiatives that enriched lives, communities and local economies. These same issues arose recently as key messages from the series of regional seminars organised by the Community Worker’s Cooperative, EAPN Ireland and the Community Platform and from the Conference on urban regeneration organised by Pobal, all in association with the Social Inclusion Division of the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs and part of Ireland’s National Programme for the 2010 EU Year.

Despite the relative success and international recognition of previous policies and initiatives to tackle poverty, the community infrastructure that delivers these important measures so effectively has been diminished and is in danger of collapse.

It is estimated that government spends about €230M on direct intervention social inclusion measures each year. These interventions deliver visible and in some cases life changing results. Investment in their delivery is certainly not unsustainable; it represents about 3% of the amount lost to the State (€7.4 billion, TASC) as a result of tax breaks, or a little over 1% of the €22 billion given to Anglo Irish Bank. The social and economic value that would arise from a greater investment in anti-poverty measures would be immense and would represent a very positive step for us all on the road to economic and social recovery.

Most progressive economists agree that we desperately need a national strategy for investment in people and jobs, one that focuses investment on the most marginalised individuals, groups and communities. The community sector should be an obvious choice of partner for the government in setting out such a strategy. Sadly, it seems that there is no appetite in government for such a partnership. Imposing a 20% cut on programmes that help the most marginalised, against an overall 1.8% cut in state expenditure is wrong, and our children, elderly parents, neighbours and communities will suffer the consequences for many years to come.

The appointment of Minister Pat Carey to the newly configured Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs provides a welcome opportunity to address poverty, social exclusion and inequality holistically and comprehensively. Any new relationship needs to be based on a spirit of trust, inclusion and mutuality, and recognition of the critical role of the community sector as a catalyst for social change and economic recovery.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 43 other followers

Blog Managed by European Anti Poverty Network Ireland

Equity House
16 Upper Ormond Quay
Dublin 7
+353-(0)1 8745737


We encourage and welcome contributions in the comments section. Comments are approved by EAPN so may take some time to appear. Comments will only be withheld where libel/defamation occurs. We're also interested in hearing from potential contributors. If you want to get in touch, contact

Follow EAPN Ireland on Twitter