In recent years, revelations about the harsh regimes prevailing in Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes shocked many. While Ireland’s social protection system initiated a social insurance benefit for widows and orphans in 1935, families who fell outside of the orthodox family based on marriage faced what has been described as a policy of ‘punitive institutionalisation’ , and it wasn’t until 1973 that the first social welfare support for ‘unmarried mothers’ was introduced.
We like to think that the stigma and exclusion of those institutions has been consigned to our past. But have we learned the lessons, or are we repeating them? Camille Loftus explores this in this blog post.
Homelessness and poverty
Poverty is a key cause of homelessness; poverty means you’re more likely to be living in accommodation that is less secure, increasing the risk of homelessness. This exposure to high levels of poverty means that lone parent families suffer a disproportionate level of homelessness.
Figure 1 – Poverty by household type, 2017
We use three different measures of poverty in Ireland, and on all three measures, lone parents suffer more poverty than other households:
- Income poverty: households with an income below the poverty line. Four in ten lone parent families live on such a low income, compared to 1 in 6 of the overall population. Lone parents have two and a half times the average rate of income poverty.
- Enforced deprivation: this means having to go without basic necessities because you can’t afford them. Nearly half of lone parent families are unable to afford these essentials, compared to less than a fifth among the population overall. Again, lone parents experience this form of poverty at two and a half times the rate of the rest of us.
- Consistent poverty: describes a household that is both living on an income below the poverty line and which therefore can’t afford basic necessities. Over a fifth of lone parent families cope with this form of poverty, three times the rate of consistent poverty in the population overall.
This pattern is unfortunately not unusual – lone parents have higher rates of poverty in most developed countries – but research from the ESRI has found that in Ireland and the UK, lone parents’ exposure to poverty is “noticeably larger” than in other welfare states.
The period of austerity also took a particular toll on lone parent families; along with other families, they suffered the impact of welfare cuts, but at the time that other families were benefiting from the restoration of some of those cuts (for example Child Benefit) lone parents who were in paid employment suffered a further income loss when welfare supports were reformed.
Their vulnerability to poverty makes lone parents an effective litmus test for the efficacy of the welfare state: where any aspect of the welfare state is failing, it is lone parents who will often be the first to suffer.
Consequently, lone parents have disproportionate experience of homelessness – while they constitute around a quarter of all families in Ireland, they represent 6 in every 10 families who are homeless. In other words, people parenting alone are two and a half times more likely to become homeless than those who have the support of a partner.
Figure 2 – Proportion of homeless families who are lone parent families
Focus Ireland’s research finds that almost seven in ten families who become homeless in Dublin had been living in stable tenancies in the private rented sector; for more than half of these families they had become homeless when their home was removed from the rental market by the landlord.
In a disconcerting echo of times past, recent Focus Ireland research found that new family formation was the cause of homelessness for more than 1 in 10 families. That becoming a parent is a trigger for homelessness surely indicates that we have failed to learn the lessons of our own history. These parents were mostly aged 24 or younger, and the majority had been living in their own family home before the additional needs associated with a new baby had forced them into homelessness.
“The relationship between me and me ma was already fragile but the minute I said I was pregnant with [child], it was completely gone like … She doesn’t seem to look past me as a daughter, like, I’m disowned now” Bea, 24
“Yeah, me ma started suffering with depression and she started taking it out on us and the kids” Elaine, 22
Despite attempts to improve the quality of emergency accommodation in which families stay while they are homeless, the recent report from the Ombudsman for Children made clear that Family Hubs fall far short of providing a living environment conducive to family life. Indeed, only three in ten homeless families are in Family Hubs, while nearly six in ten are still reliant on B&Bs and hotels.
A common theme across these different types of accommodation is the restriction on family life. Children are not allowed to be unaccompanied at any time, giving both parent and child almost no private time, increasing stress and tension within the family. Most emergency accommodation also does not allow visitors, which makes it even harder for lone parents to ensure that their children’s relationship with the non-resident parent is maintained.
Some of our most vulnerable families are being housed in accommodation that increases, rather than reduces, their vulnerability – and many of them remained trapped in this family-unfriendly accommodation for long periods of time. Nearly half (44%) of all homeless families have been living in ‘emergency’ accommodation for more than a year.
What have we learned?
 McCashin, A. (2004) Social Security in Ireland. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan
 Watson, D., Maitre, B., Grotti, R. & Whelan, C.T. (2018) Poverty Dynamics of Social Risk Groups in the EU: An analysis of the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions, 2005 to 2014. Dublin: ESRI & DEASP. https://www.esri.ie/publications/poverty-dynamics-of-social-risk-groups-in-the-eu-an-analysis-of-the-eu-statistics-on
 Lambert, O’Callaghan & Jump (2018) Young Families in the Homeless Crisis: Challenges and Solutions. https://www.focusireland.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Lambert-et-al-2018-Young-Families-in-the-Homeless-Crisis-Full-Report-1.pdf
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