In this blog post, Dr Mary Murphy from the Department of Sociology, Maynooth University explores how policy makers rationalise lone parent’s ambitions for employment and housing.
Lone parent families in Ireland head the league tables for those most damaged by austerity and those most likely to be homeless. Too many experience the dis-empowerment of economic poverty and destitution. Many are also experiencing more subtle losses of power as policy shifts the choice architecture within which lone parents can control their daily lives and plan their futures.
Changes in social protection and employment policy, first signalled in 2012 and now fully implemented, mean lone parents with a youngest child aged 7 or over are no longer entitled to the One Parent Family payment. Lone parents reliant on a Job Seekers’ Transition allowance must demonstrate engagement with Ireland’s activation services, while those reliant on Job Seekers’ Allowance must demonstrate that they are searching for, and accept offers of, full-time work. This non-negotiable full-time work obligation exists regardless of care obligations or parenting commitments. To copper-fasten this orientation to full-time work, social welfare rule changes mean lone parents remaining in part-time employment lose income.
Lone parents who find themselves living in emergency accommodation find many forms of personal restrictions, some are short term, but others impact on their longer-term choices and ambitions. The licence to stay in emergency accommodation requires them to do all they can to access private sector accommodation using the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP).
Many families fear that such tenancies are too insecure to be an adequate foundation for family life and opt to wait for the longer tenure offered by social housing. Others become demoralised and resist engaging in pointless house search where they cannot compete with those seen as more desirable by landlords.
In a form of ‘creeping conditionality’, over 2018 policy makers increased pressure on those supporting such families to convince them to take HAP and restricted the conditions under which people can refuse social housing offers. Further, the Homelessness Inter-Agency Group is actively considering making access to emergency housing conditional on engagement with private sector house search and utilisation of HAP.
Examining the rationales behind both policies gives some insight into the erroneous assumptions underpinning policy. Policy makers assume processes of rational economic decision-making and fail to appreciate the degree to which a gendered and moral rationality can guide how lone parents consider employment and housing options.
Some of the momentum that led to work conditionality imposed on lone parents can be found in how policy makers problematized why lone parents were unresponsive to employment incentives designed to enable them transition from part-time to full-time employment.
The problem, as perceived by policy makers, was that lone parents were ‘nesting’ on a combination of part-time work, social protection and in-work benefits. The solution was to make the lone parent’s payment conditional on accepting full-time work. However, this solution ignores how lone parent’s decisions are filtered through other lenses, which, for some, place such a high priority on parenting that they will forgo economic gains to meet parenting commitments. Instead of financially punishing lone parents who prioritise parenting, a more flexible policy would both incentivise and enable lone parents choose to work, full and part-time.
Likewise policy makers observe how residents in emergency accommodation resist engaging with what many perceive as an insecure and unrealistic private sector housing options and HAP. The policy makers quickly conclude that these parents are ‘gaming’ the system and proceed to change the rules to condition the residents towards use of HAP. As Fletcher et al remind us for people to ‘game the system’, they need capacity, knowledge, agency, and moral propensity.
It is hard for people to game a housing allocation system when the rules are so opaque that not even those administering housing lists understand how they work.
Listening to, and understanding, the motivation and gendered moral rationalities behind decisions not to accept HAP points offers us a different set of policy solutions. Lone parents describe how they base such decisions on long-term considerations and understand housing stability as key to both child well-being and education progression and to maintaining the social networks needed for social and economic inclusion. In the long-term, only more social housing can provide such generational security, however in the short-term policy makers could respond to such real concerns with re-housing guarantees in local areas in the event of loss of private sector housing.
There are alternatives to parallel discourses which stigmatise lone parents as ‘nesting’ or ‘gaming’ and to policies that push them to search for jobs and houses that will not work for them or their children. Policy-makers could utilise wider frames which might give a more holistic insight into how and why lone parents do what they do.
A more holistic approach would also make connections between stable housing, childcare, social networks, social inclusion and employment. Homeless lone parents know first-hand how poor policy decisions can cumulatively damage their lives. Perhaps if we listened to them more we might design integrated policies that enhance family well-being in the short and long-term.
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