I remember canvassing a house once in North Dublin during the 1987 General Election. It was a long and cold campaign that started on the day of a snow shower. One house in particular stood out then and still does. I had an argument with a woman who told me that Ballymun should be sterilised and that all the single teenage mothers who were living in sin at our expense should be forced to give up their childrens allowance and welfare. They were getting pregnant simply as to fund their life style and where were the fathers?
Of course we’ve moved on from those dark days of 80’s when the single mother no one knew about Ann Lovett died, or the Kerry Babies tribunal inquired into how Irish values were different then, or were they? Or have we moved on at all?
Yesterdays announcement that Fianna Fail and the Greens are now going to end payments to single mothers payment once the child has turned 13 as opposed to 18 or indeed 22 if they are in continuing education at present gives the right wing moral majority who want to use the state apparatus to endorse or punish values that they disapprove a fillip.
So why are they doing this? Lets remind ourselves of what the constitution says”The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”. So is the government not behaving in an unconstitutional way? What they want to do is to remove a payment from a parent with a child of 13. Do FF & the Greens think it stops at 13 and that 13 years olds require no further care than school? So where does childhood end and where does adulthood start? Brian Cowen says he wants to reduce our social welfare dependency. This plan ignoes the reality that there are no jobs for single women no more than there are for any other sub group that has been out of the owrkforce for some time. A real question is what about the responisbiltiy of each father in terms of emotional support for their child even if their own income may be marginal in what it can help. A child is better off with both parents, it doesn't always work out like that, but in the physical absence of a father the state surely should step in to help.
What will the government save? Births while still above the European average are well below numbers that they peaked at in the 80’s. True the number of children born to single women are now about 40% of all births but women are having less babies and having them later in their reproductive life than ever before. My point is that the savings won’t be as big as they think.
Many on single parents benefit rely on back to school allowance, child benefit and allowances for rent. Fianna Fail & the Greens tell us that this will only kick in over 6 years but its clear that the allowance will not be paid to those with children now in 3rd level education. My point is that welfare should be about helping a person up the ladder. And in 6 years time being the child of a single parent will act as a break on progressing to second level education. Its likely that the greens don’t connect with many single parents struggling on low incomes. Its clear FF don’t care about them as a group.
Politically let’s compare the response to the recent concern about child benefit. Do you remember last year when the airwaves were filled with discussion as to whether the benefit should be means tested or taxed? In the end, they cut it. Strangely there was no debate now about limiting access to the Single Parent payment. Why? Because the payment is often to women from lower socio economic groupings. Recently the government decided to cut the pensions of elderly women farmers. These women lobbied and made sure the government made a U turn. It seems that the Fianna Fail and the Greens have now found a softer target to hit that will speak out but aren’t as well organised to protest as the farmers.
Into the vacuum will run the FF moralists who’ll nod and wink to those who are prejudiced. Believe me they are still out there a lot older and politically cuter than when they ruled the political roost in the bleak 80’s. So long as we have marginalised sub groups we’ll have them.