Educated Poverty

Yesterday, I read this piece in the Journal. I didn’t write it – but I could have.

Those of us who parent alone – and the vast majority of us are female – experience the highest rates of deprivation: Nearly 60% of those in single-parent households live with the lack of basic necessities. And, according to the CSO, more than half a million people live in one parent families. That’s a lot of lack.

Like many poor people, lone parents are blamed for their circumstances and for their poverty. In spite of the fact that many women are married, or in stable relationships when they have their children, they are judged as feckless ‘young wans’ whose only desire is to ‘sponge off the state’. May of the comments on the piece I’ve linked to above demonstrate this. One of the things that bothers me about nasty comments and judgements aimed at single mothers is the fact that those who deride them are picking on the wrong parent. They are picking on the parent who is actually parenting. They are picking on the parent who didn’t abandon their child. They are picking on the parent who is doing their best, in spite of the odds, which are stacked against them.

For the longest time, the accepted narrative is that the only way out of poverty is education. Sadly, that’s only half the story. As a woman who has been parenting on my own in Ireland for nearly 12 years, I have direct, personal experience of this. I returned to education when my eldest was 3.5 years old, and my youngest was just 16 months old. Four years later and I was able to put the letters BA (Hons) after my name. Now I had a degree, I was sure I’d find (or make) work for myself.

Sadly, I was wrong. I graduated in 2009, when the Celtic Tiger was in its death throes. Few places were hiring. Even fewer were hiring new graduates. Even fewer would even acknowledge an application from a single parent of two young children. After a year of trying to secure gainful employment (and giving many, many hours for free to NGOs and charities and publications), I returned to education. In 2012, I added ‘MA’ to those letters after my name. Now, surely, someone would hire me.

Again, I was wrong in thinking that I would be offered a job by a company in Ireland. To add insult to injury, several of those employers who deigned to employ me had no difficulty accepting my services for free before they had ‘openings’ for which I applied. Repeatedly, when applying for jobs I was already doing for NGOs and other agencies for whom I had done volunteer work, I was told that I lacked the ‘law piece’. So I applied, and was accepted, to the Law School at Queen’s University in Belfast.

In between finishing my MA and starting my LLM, I was accepted on to a PhD programme at Trinity College, Dublin. I did the first year ‘off books’ (a term meaning that – while I was studying – I hadn’t paid fees, so I wasn’t technically registered, and my access to certain things was restricted). When it came time to start my second year at Trinity, I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t commit my kids to another three years of poverty. I opted to go to Queen’s instead, thinking that I was better off to spend a year studying intensely and get myself a degree at the end of it, than spend a year studying intensely and still only be part way through a degree. Even if that degree was a PhD. So far, the idea that a primary degree and two Master’s degrees will open up employment opportunities has proved unfounded – but I live in hope (because, frankly, I have little else).

Tertiary education, to me, means being hungry. I don’t mean that metaphorically, I mean it literally. When I’m studying, I can’t afford to eat three meals a day. So I don’t. I drink a lot of coffee (that I bring from home), and insist that it’s all in a good cause. And anyway, I can afford to lose a few kilos. Plus, I’ll get a job at the end of it, I tell myself on the days and nights when the gnawing in my stomach distracts me from the words on the page. That last, so far, has proved to be a lie.

No matter how highly educated you are in Ireland, you can’t be sure you’ll get a job. I think part of the reason for that is a lack of ability on the part of Irish employers to recognise, and understand, the value of transferable skills. The idea that the skills single mothers use on a daily basis – financial juggling, multi-tasking, fire-fighting, negotiating, prioritising, communicating with government departments, healthcare, etc. etc. – are useful in the workplace, completely escapes Irish employers. There is also a reluctance to acknowledge that people can retrain, change direction, and bring their previous experience with them. The Irish way is that you have a box that you have been put in, and you must stay in that box forever. Especially if you are a woman. And most especially if you are a woman raising children on your own.

Education, on its own, won’t help lone parents lift themselves out of poverty. It’s a start – but it’s not the complete solution. We need access to jobs once we’ve graduated – and access to quality childcare, and employers who understand that we are no less committed to our jobs than our childfree colleagues. In short, we need support from the state and the society we’re living in. We need the opportunity to put our expensive educations to good use.