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Abstract

This paper is based on a presentation given at the conference Social Care and Social Policy in Ireland: Seeking Social Justice in the Era of Austerity and Beyond, February 16th 2015. The presentation communicated the findings of a Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) (2014) qualitative research study with low-income lone parents in Ireland, ‘“It’s the hardest job in the world”: An exploratory research study with one-parent families being assisted by the Society of St Vincent de Paul’. SVP commissioned the research to better understand the needs and circumstances of the one parent families it was assisting during austerity in ever increasing numbers. The research provided an insight into the experiences of the families at a time of sharp governmental budgetary austerity, from 2008 to 2013.

This paper employs parents’ own accounts of everyday battles to make ends meet, illustrating how cuts to public expenditure added to the financial adversity and material deprivation that they were already experiencing. An impact of austerity was parents’ approach to SVP for assistance with basic needs such as fuel and food. The parents described feelings of stigma and shame at having to seek charitable support.

During austerity the Irish Government also implemented reform to ‘activate’ lone parents in receipt of the One-parent Family Payment (OFP), a means-tested social assistance payment that does not require jobseeking for qualification, into jobseekers payments when their youngest child reaches 7 years of age. Lone parents (primarily mothers) assisted by SVP are the target cohort of the reform. The reform classifies lone parents as adult full-time workers, rather than being designed to take both caring and working roles into account. The explicit policy aim is reducing poverty and deprivation. The research explored the parents’ reactions to reform and their positive motivations about paid employment, but also their desire for pathways to quality employment that allowed them to be good parents.

The paper concludes that cumulative budgetary austerity in Ireland tightened the rubber band of low-income for families whose incomes were already inadequate to meet a minimum standard of living. With its current design, the reform may discourage working lone parents from employment. Public policy recommendations include developing an incomes policy for lone parent families; reforming the jobs market to ensure that employment betters families’ living standards and is family friendly; and broadening Irish policy to faciliate lone parents in their roles as parents and workers.

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