Although the EU economy recovered from the last recession, it has suffered another shock as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic, with inequality again on the increase and some families facing multiple challenges. Single parent families, large families, migrant families and families where members have disabilities or long-term conditions face high risks of social exclusion and material deprivation.
On 26th October, we held a 1-day expert meeting putting the spotlight on single parent families and large families, taking COFACE members virtually to the meeting hosts in Budapest where Anna Nagy (Director of Single Parents Foundation) and Kinga Joó (Vice-President of NOE) provided insights into the situation in Hungary, as a starting point for discussions with counterpart organisations from other EU countries.
As indicated in the opening speech of COFACE President, Annemie Drieskens, life in single parent families and in large families is very heterogeneous and determined by different factors that go beyond their family structure and are strongly related to their job and financial situation, their living and housing conditions, the problems they have to find a balance between work and their family, the lack of public services and social benefits they can rely on. The aim of the meeting was to learn more about the work of our Hungarian members to support single parent and large families; to foster exchange between NGOs supporting families in different countries of the COFACE network; to improve understanding of the specific needs of single-parent and large families; and to collect the information into a COFACE policy brief on families in vulnerable situations.
With the help of experts from Hungary, Spain, Belgium and feedback from experts from several countries we examined the situation of these two family types in the following areas: housing, income support and work-life balance, and family care. The two main questions addressed in the discussions were the following:
- what are the challenges identified for single parents and large families?
- what solutions exist to address these challenges?
Here is a first overview of some of the points made during the meeting.
Challenges were highlighted regarding the invisibility of these two family types in some countries e.g. in Spain the Isadora Duncan foundation is calling for a national legal framework on single parenthood for full recognition of this growing family type (only 6 Spanish regions currently have such recognition, excluding Madrid). The invisibility also makes it difficult to reach out to families who need support the most, even if low income was highlighted as a clear indicator which should automatically activate supports of different types.
There was also some demystifying during the meeting regarding these two family types. Large families are not necessarily all vulnerable, but are sometimes invisible and forgotten, and even stigmatised. The same applies for misconceptions regarding single parenthood and the full diversity which exists: from permanent to temporary single parenthood, the reasons for single parenthood (from choice to divorce to bereavement), as well as the intrinsically linked realities of blended/recomposed families, transnational families and more.
The lack of a two-generation approach to supporting such families can have various negative implications on both parents and children. For instance, recent reforms from 2019 in child benefits in Belgium have led to one flat rate benefit per child instead of the usual incremental rates for each new child, which means that large families lose out. However, the income support systems somewhat compensate for this e.g. with higher taxable income ceilings for large families. Taking the well-being of both child and parent as a starting point would help ensure measures are better tailored towards the real needs of families.
The needs of children are intrinsically linked to that of their parents, as is the stigma still associated with these families in some countries. Children considered more disruptive in schools (and coming from single parent families or large families) may lead to criticism of their family environment. In some cases, the stigma can also lead to labour market discrimination which is extremely challenging in the best of times, but even more so with the economic of the COVID-19 pandemic. Regarding single parenthood, bringing up a family on one salary it difficult enough, but with the impact of COVID-19 in some cases there is no salary left, which requires immediate minimum income support measures.
Access to decent housing was considered essential for quality of life, and an essential and transformative lever for families in vulnerable situations to get the stability and support they need. There was a focus during the discussions on the reality of overcrowding challenges for large families, and on affordability issues for single parent families (with only one income). Other housing-related issues covered were the criteria for access to social housing which differs across countries: number of children, but also a mix of other factors linked to income levels, domestic violence, disability and more. The lack of coordinated national social housing strategies was highlighted in some countries, leading to patchy social housing provision and uneven access to housing for families. The new Hungarian family protection action plan includes a big housing dimension, aimed to support especially large families financially while also boosting birthrates.
Even if the heterogeneity of family types and needs today makes it more complex for policy-makers, we must ensure all those parents are not in vulnerable situations and are sufficiently supported by effective measures. While large families and single parent families tend to have different needs, sometimes they overlap (e.g. single parent with more than three children), and can be coupled with special needs linked to disability or chronic illness.
Safety nets must be provided by national solidarity and not only by families, using a universal approach which supports vulnerable families and children in ways which prevent differentiation and social stigma, but measures the intensity of care and support needed. Different dimensions should be considered in assessing the support needs (e.g. children or family members with special needs, the number of children, the income levels of the parents), as well as recognition of the limits of 24h days to both work and care. Giving value to the unpaid work and care provided by a single parent (acting alone) and large families (supporting many children) was highlighted, as well as the need to better demonstrate the acquired skills and competences developed via care work.
The (heavy) involvement of grandparents would be a first step to building intergenerational family support systems adapted to 21st century realities, and especially to the new COVID-19 reality where grandparents can no longer fulfill their supporting role fully but also require age-related support.
We want to ensure that all families without discrimination have access to sufficient financial resources, available quality services and adequate time arrangements. This continuum of support is essential to give all families real choices to thriven to care for their children and their family members. This includes different types of mental health, respite and psycho-social support to deal with parental burnout – such services are as important as income support and decent employment opportunities without discrimination.
Income and time were highlighted as crucial factors, especially for single parent families. But not all single parent families have low incomes or need income support, so there is a need for diversification in support measures regarding income. Regarding time however, all single parents are confronted to the same problem of having only 24 hours in the day and no partner to share the household care/tasks with. Hence time-related measures are especially needed.
Early Childhood Education and Care services were considered essential by all participants in the meeting, with examples from different countries like Hungary which uses EU structural and investment funds to develop the infrastructure necessary to create more places in day care for children below the age of 3. Before and after school care was also mentioned as essential to develop further, to ensure all-day care, with suggestions to measure access to ECEC in hours and not only in places, to detail the extent of access. The European Commission proposal for a European Child Guarantee puts access to services for families experiencing poverty at its core, including ECEC, nutrition, housing and more – this must be an important policy framework to support families in vulnerable situations, backed by a clear allocation of funding in the future EU budget from 2021-2027.
Reaching out to families who need it the most can be a challenge, but ensuring awareness of NGO support available in the community like the Home Start programme or the Single Parents’ Center in Hungary and indeed all the NGO support services of the COFACE membership, can help engage with families in vulnerable situations. Moreover, different key pieces of information (e.g. a disability diagnosis, the available of one income only) should trigger automatic support through reduced costs for ECEC, housing benefits, affordable energy bills; as well as support services like family mediation, enforcement of child maintenance mechanisms for separated couples. The latter should be in the spotlight of decision makers as it is a serious, yet unsolved problem all over Europe. Enforcement of child maintenance mechanisms play a big role in child poverty and the high risk of poverty in single parent families.
In relation to access to housing, the COVID-19 pandemic was seen as an opportunity to strengthen existing social housing strategies (e.g. access criteria taking into account different needs and realities) or developing new national approaches to social housing. This is not only essential for the housing rights and decent living conditions of families, but also good for local economies and for the environment. Decent and affordable housing solutions exist in different communities, working hand in hand with third sector organisations (co-housing, housing funds, housing support and more) — this sector should be boosted further.