Educated Poverty

Pic of Student Card number erased

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.


Published by

Hazel Katherine Larkin


8 thoughts on “Educated Poverty”

  1. Very well put article. I am currently writing my MA thesis, which centres on policies impacting lone parents (negatively of course) all in the hope that my BA and MA will make me ’emplyable’, together with previous experience and my transferable skills of course! I fear I have many many hours ahead in NGO’S myself…. but I live in hope.


    1. Hi Sam!

      Thank you for taking the time to read, and comment on, my piece.

      Your MA thesis sounds very interesting; I wish you the very best of luck with it. And, of course, with finding satisfying work thereafter.



  2. The whole system seems to be against us single mothers. I am being penalized for court ordered maintenance payments that I am not even receiving!!! After the last two years in court case which is still ongoing. Because of restrictions and reductions I am being kept in poverty. I too am doing a degree course with the hope of securing employment and getting myself and my three children out of the welfare trap. There is an awful amount of stigma attached to us single mothers. Proof that Ireland has not come far enough in equal rights. Father’s who believe that they should not have to contribute financially to their children’s upbringing appears to be a serious social issues too. Changes need to be made in supporting lone parents in education and the mindset of the non contributing parent.


    1. Your’re right, Lorna. The system is still one that punishes women for having children and raising them alone – regardless of the circumstances. As in so many other areas of life, men are praised to the highest for doing their duty (in this case paying for the upkeep of their children), while it is expected of women – who are lambasted if they don’t do it ‘perfectly’.


  3. Lorna, the state is actively discouraging fathers’ to contribute financially. Once you’re youngest child turns 7, they are writing to father’s telling them they are no longer obliged to pay unless court ordered and as you have found, for many it is too risky to get a court order, as you are deducted, regardless of compliance or not.

    Well said Hazel, we need to move the debate around education alone and start looking for structural supports for our children.


  4. I read this and it was like my own narrative. Very well written and real. I am a single mother who went back to education in Maynooth to do a Hdip in Education and after, a MA in Adult and Community Education. Yet I had to create employment for myself while I was juggling my education, I was running a business and looking after my son while doing the normal routine of keeping a house. My MA thesis is on the neoliberal policies currently being used in Ireland and how its negatively impacting single parent’s. I would like to speak to you regarding my work Hazel if its possible?


    1. Hi Christina – thanks for taking the time to read, and comment on, the blog. I think the one positive that’s coming across (between the shares, the comments here and on other social media sites etc) is that we are not alone!

      Your thesis sounds very interesting – please feel free to get in touch. I can be found at



  5. I agree with much of what you say in this piece however you state that “The idea that the skills single mothers use on a daily basis … are useful in the workplace, completely escapes Irish employers.” This is not the case at all. These skills are a burden to managers and they may come with other traits like self esteem and self empowerment which have no place in most organisations.
    The cost of new, independent-minded employees is well known, they have a disruptive effect on teams where all the cogs in the wheel know their function and simply do their jobs. Education is useful but only when the person possessing it is impressionable enough to be moulded into an efficient team member.
    This is not to suggest that the skills you mention are not useful or that you can’t find a job that requires such skills, simply that such posts will be rare and competition for them will be high. State and societal intervention can help but it will be tough to change the view of organisations that have been built on this kind of thinking.

    Getting a good job is hard, an education helps you understand why it’s hard, but not getting a job still sucks!


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