Reform of the One Parent Family Allowance?
The front page of this morning’s Irish Times carries this story reporting the Minister for Social Welfare Mary Hanafin’s (left) view that some reform of the one parent family allowance may be required. In the Minister’s view “The idea of continuing to pay somebody until their child is 22 if they’re in full-time education, it just mitigates against that lone parent herself having a stable relationship or marrying or even taking a full-time job, because of the attachment to ‘the book’”. The article reports that the Minister is considering discussing a situation where one parent family allowance would cease around the time that a child went to secondary school and that she seeks a ‘social policy’, rather than economic, discussion around this welfare allowance. It should be noted, first of all, that changes along these lines were proposed in the Government Discussion Paper: Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents (2006) and are therefore not new. In addition, the discussion is prompted by an awareness that lone parents are reportedly four times more likely to live in poverty and a desire to try to improve state-based supports for lone parent families.
Originally lone parents were supported through the poor law and such support was, in fact, reflective of a very punitive and moralistic approach to single parents (and single mothers in particular). Lone fathers were not originally entitled to any lone parent support from the state; a situation that was upheld by the Supreme Court in Lowth v Minister for Social Welfare  3 IR 321 on the basis of ‘social function’.
Part III of the Social Welfare Act 1990 introduced a means tested, non-gender-specific lone parent’s allowance payable to those with at least one qualifying child. Part V of the Social Welfare Act 1996 then introduced the one parent family payment to replace the lone parent’s allowance, deserted wife’s benefit and deserted wife’s allowance. This gender neutral, means tested payment is intended to support those who are bringing up a child without the support of a partner and without access to income from other sources. Qualifying children are children up to the age of 18 or, when in full-time education, up the age of 22 where the recipient is the main carer of the child. Rather controversially, qualification for the one parent family allowance is dependent on one complying with the “non-cohabitation” rule, i.e. a rule that prohibits the payment of OPF allowance to anyone who resides with another adult “as husband and wife” regardless of whether the other cohabiting adult in fact parents or supports the child to any extent.
In her remarks as reported in the Irish Times the Minister claims that payment of this allowance up to the age of 22 (or 18 if not in full-time employment) potentially acts as a barrier to lone parents “having a stable relationship or marrying or even taking a full-time job”. The first two of these statements are, if accurate, related more to the enforcement of the non cohabitation rule than to any kind of dependence on welfare support per se. The non cohabitation rule not only places barriers in front of adults who may wish to build adult relationships with others but also reflects an assumption that an adult partner of a lone parent would be contributing towards parenting when this may well not be true in many cases. In fact, the rule strikes one as a continuation of the moralistic and quasi-punitive tone of the Poor Laws and original supports for lone parents and reform of that rule ought to be firmly put on the agenda in any social policy discussion. The third claim of the Minister—that payment of this allowance up to 18 or 22 years of age may discourage enrolment in full-time employment—is a particularly problematic and complex one. The allowance is means tested, as noted above, therefore the income of a parent will be an important consideration. However, any social policy discussion around this (or other) payment(s) must take into account the need for balance: the need to ensure that payment levels are such as to enable recipients to support, feed, educate, clothe etc… their children without removing incentives for employment and so on. The reality is that when one is a lone parent, precluded from cohabiting with another adult in an intimate relationship, then a full time job with a teenage child who is in secondary school, past ‘childcare’ age, and in need of support to realise their full personal potential (as all teenagers are) is an incredibly difficult prospect. In addition, of course, in today’s economic climate jobs are difficult to find and recruitment is extremely competitive—cutting off the allowance once a child turned 13 could have extremely serious implications for teenage children living in one parent families.
The Minister has said that the allowance as currently designed is “not working”. In order for any social policy discussion about this payment to be effective we must first identify what the objectives of this payment are. It is only when these objectives are clear, and when we have seriously considered whether personal restrictions such as the non-cohabitation rule are appropriate and necessary interferences with adult freedoms, that any kind of fruitful discussion can take place.
UPDATE: RTÉ reports that the Minister will not introduce any changes to one parent family allowance in 2010
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