New Policy Study Says Institutional Reforms Needed to Support Low Income Mothers Entering Paid Employment

Posted on: 24 January 2007

Activation strategies to help low income mothers into paid employment must address practical obstacles including health, housing, care, transport and educational disadvantage in a coordinated and integrated way, and will require institutional reform at local and national level, according to a new policy study on work activation policy by Dr Mary Murphy, former Poverty and Policy Visiting Research Fellow at the Policy Institute, Trinity College Dublin.  The study was launched on January 23rd last.
The paper, which was funded jointly by the Policy Institute in Trinity College and Combat Poverty, aims to develop a positive model of activation capable of supporting people of working age in their efforts to find decent, sustainable employment and examines how such an approach might be implemented in Ireland. It does this in the context of current Government proposals to support lone parents into employment  that would, among other changes, introduce a work obligation of at least 19.5 hours per week for recipients of the One Parent Family Payment and qualified adults social assistance payments when their youngest child reaches eight years of age.

“Working in paid employment is now a common aspiration for many low-income mothers and any supports that can assist them towards the goal of decent employment are to be welcomed. However there is no compelling argument for a more conditional social security system’, according to Dr. Murphy.  The positive framework for work activation proposed in the paper focuses on broader social inclusion rather than work focused approaches to activation. It outlines a long term human and social capital approach, which focuses on ‘education first’ rather than ‘work first’ employment strategies. Such an approach would anchor the State’s obligations to claimants in legally defined rights and standards frameworks, and ensure that claimants’ obligations are proportionate to the level of investment by, and obligations to, the State.

“Given the scale of multidimensional disadvantage and practical obstacles including health, housing, care, transport and educational disadvantage, activation strategies must be placed in an institutional framework that is capable of addressing such needs in a co-ordinated and integrated manner. This will require institutional reforms at national and local level, including changes in the relationship between employment services (FÁS) and income supports (Department of Social and Family Affairs) and developments the role of City and County Development Boards. Such a quantum leap requires clear political and bureaucratic leadership and active collaboration with key representative groups”, said Dr. Murphy.

“The introduction of work requirements should be at least delayed until adequate institutional frameworks and quality supports are in place. As debate moves on it is necessary to be both ambitious about the future but grounded about the reality and tensions in women’s lives and to focus on what is required to achieve long term child well-being in future generations’, she said.    

Commenting on the occasion of the launch of the policy, Kevin O’Kelly, Acting Director or Combat Poverty said, “This study confirms the need for comprehensive supports to overcome the barriers preventing low income mothers from taking up paid employment.  Recent statistics from the CSO show that the rate of poverty among people living in lone parent households increased from 27.2% to 32.5% between 2005 and 2006.  This is nearly four times the rate of the overall population”.
The study was launched by Dr Maureen Gaffney, chair of the National Economic and Social Council.

Notes to the Editor:
The author is Mary Murphy B.A., PhD (DCU), who researched the paper while on the Poverty and Policy Visiting Research Fellowship at the Policy Institute, TCD. Mary is currently a lecturer in the Department of Sociology, NUIM, Maynooth. Previously, Mary was National Social Policy Officer in the Society of St Vincent de Paul (1998-2001) and Assistant General Secretary of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed (1991-1998). Her research interests include globalisation and welfare states, political mediation of social policy reform, local governance, gender, social security and welfare to work.  

The Policy Institute is a multi-disciplinary public policy research institute based in Trinity College Dublin. It aims to advance new and innovative ideas in research and education in public policy, by promoting active debate and engagement between the academic and policy communities of Ireland and by supporting the analysis and development of effective policy solutions. The Policy Institute publishes its outputs in the series, Studies in Public Policy, which provide short, rigorous but accessible analyses of policy issues of major importance.

Combat Poverty is a statutory organisation responsible for providing evidence based advice to the Irish government on policies to reduce poverty in Ireland. It is the lead public body for promoting research on poverty in Ireland. Combat Poverty supports independent, policy-relevant research with the twin aims of promoting public understanding of poverty and informing the development of policy frameworks to tackle poverty, especially the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2007-2016.