Friday 30 September 2016

Lorraine Courtney: Government traps parents in classic Catch-22 on childcare

Lorraine Courtney

Published 16/06/2015 | 02:30

Tánaiste Joan Burton promised not to implement harsh reforms without adequate childcare provision
Tánaiste Joan Burton promised not to implement harsh reforms without adequate childcare provision

The Government remains determined to coax single parents off welfare and back into jobs, despite mass protests outside the Dáil last week. On July 2, the age limit for the One-Parent Family Payment will be reduced to seven for most claimants. This means that around 32,000 single parents will lose their payment next month.

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The move is the final stage in a Government plan to phase out these payments once children reach seven, as part of the strategy to encourage single parents off welfare and into jobs.

One-parent families will now move to a new transitional jobseekers' payment once their youngest child reaches seven. But they will be €53 a week worse-off if they also work in low-paying jobs, while a lone parent, working 20 hours per week on minimum wage, with one child, will lose a massive €108 per week.

Sometimes, people can be too poor to work. Back in 2011 when Joan Burton announced these new reforming measures, she promised not to proceed with them unless she could also introduce affordable childcare. The Minister said that the new rules would not be implemented unless there was a "system of safe affordable and accessible childcare in place, similar to what is found in the Scandinavian countries to whose systems of social protection we aspire."

Surely, we thought, this time they will address the issue of childcare? It's by far the greatest economic problem facing parents today but it seems they will remain forever trapped in a Catch-22 situation. Simply, if you do not have enough money to make sure that your child is adequately provided for while you are out, then you cannot go to work; if you do not go to work, you will not have enough money to make sure that your child is adequately provided for while you are at home. And so thousands of parents will stay caught in this trap, with single parents hit hardest of all since they don't have a second income to help with the cost of paid childcare. Our system tends to trap those it is supposed to help. It is too easy for social welfare claimants to sink into lethargy and do nothing. It is too easy for single parents to slide into a marginal non-working alternative life on the dole. Only affordable childcare and better back-to-work incentives are real engines for social change. But joined-up thinking seems beyond our policymakers.

Most single parents say they want to work but are caught by the benefits and childcare trap. Jobs provide more than money: they give your days a focus and structure; they provide social contacts, self-esteem and a role in life. One of the first questions we ask when we meet someone is: "What do you do?" Being jobless can knock away a person's entire sense of self. There is little argument about what could be done; the permutations are many and various. How about starting with increasing child benefit, either across the board, or weighted towards the needier, if necessary, at the expense of the better-off. Figures from Eurostat show nearly a quarter of Irish children live in one-parent homes, much higher than the European average of 13.6pc.

Nobody can dispute the very high rate in dependency of our 87,918 parents currently receiving the One-Parent Family Payment. That's 41pc of all one-parent families. Just over four in 10 lone parents are in paid work, compared with seven in 10 of two-parent families.

Nor should anyone be proud of the result. Remember, the poverty which afflicts most lone parents also narrows the future opportunities of their children. Other European states have avoided this dependency trap: Finland, France, Denmark and Sweden all have under 40pc of single parents dependent on benefits. The Netherlands has under 30pc and Germany has under 20pc. Sensibly, we should give single parents a choice - not an order - to find a job. But in reality, there will be no choice because there is no plan for comprehensive childcare provision. Nobody should be pushed in at the deep end and nobody should be too poor to take up a job.

Irish Independent

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