‘Cuts hitting hard’: single mums speak out

A rally against cuts to parents payment in February last year.

An anonymous post to the Facebook group “Parenting Payments for Parents — not Newstart” (PPPNN) on February 26 read: “It’s been a very long, long, tiring road with no help from police regarding the violence ... I am now settled in a new private rental of $355 a week but I just can’t get back on track … I can’t put food on the table or nappies on my children’s bottoms this week.

“I rang every charity in my area to no avail ... This is what’s happening to parents who are struggling. We are slipping through the cracks. It’s a sad world we live in … How can I give my children a new start when I can’t even provide the essentials for everyday living?”

Louise Williams is one of eight administrators of the group, an online community of close to 7000 people — mainly single mothers — fighting for the reinstatement of Parenting Payments Single (PPS) for sole parents with children over eight-years-old.

Williams and her kids have recently become homeless. She spoke to Green Left Weekly from temporary accommodation.

“The people on our page are the most supportive community I have had the pleasure to deal with,” she said. “They don't have much, but offer up what they can to help. Amazing people.”

On the day we speak, the PPPNN page is abuzz with offers of nappies, formula, money and help to deal with Centrelink in response to the cry for help from the anonymous poster.

The admins organise a nearby single mother to act as the collection point. A bank account is established for donations. Centrelink is contacted and shamed into making emergency payments. The community rallies around another casualty of the deadly combination of sexual violence and grinding poverty.

They know what it’s like because they have been there. “You are not alone,” they write over and over again. “We are with you.”

Life has been getting much harder for single mothers in Australia in the past decade. The John Howard government slashed single parent income support in 2006 with its “Welfare to Work” measures.

Julia Gillard cut it again in late 2012 when, on the same day as her celebrated “anti-misogyny speech”, she announced that 80,000 sole parents who had previously been spared would be moved from the PPS to the lower Newstart benefit within months.

Both governments exploited prejudice against single mothers to justify their cuts, claiming they were designed to “increase women’s participation in the workforce”. In fact they did the opposite, removing incentives for single mothers to work or study and trapping them in such abject poverty they had little time, or energy, to do any more than survive.

Since the Howard and Gillard attacks there have been many more smaller cuts, such as the removal of vital allowances for student parents, rent and pharmaceutical subsidies, pension cards that give access to discounts on public transport and household bills, tightening of criteria for carers and disability allowances, tax rebates and one-off payments for school needs and aids.

All this has had a big social and economic impact. It has pushed up unemployment, raised evictions and homelessness, placed a big strain on charities, and increased domestic violence and mental illness.

Williams says PPPNN was set up “to reach out to people affected [by Gillard’s cuts] so they would know they are not alone”.

Today it is a brains trust on the bureaucratic labyrinth that is the welfare system, and more. Discussions range from: how to make 200 grams of mince stretch to a meal for four, to how to take out a domestic violence order, or how to get $6.50 out of the bank when the auto teller minimum is $20.

Williams and the other admins have a zero tolerance policy on passing judgment. Whether the discussion is sex work, shoplifting, pregnancy termination or budget recipes, moralisers are blocked.

I asked her if they consider themselves feminists? She said: “Yes. We are all strong, independent women. But we feel it was a bloody cheek of Gillard to dump on women from a great height on the day she made her famous misogyny speech … We all feel the betrayal keenly.”

Margarita Windisch, a sexual assault counsellor and feminist activist, told GLW she believes the Labor Party’s wholesale adoption of the “welfare to work” lie is a big part of the reason the growing plight of single mothers and their kids has had such a low public profile.

She said: “Remember, single mothers have been demonised in public discourse for centuries. Labor has been one of the key perpetrators of attacks on single parents.”

The Australian Council of Social Service and some churches — especially those struggling to provide crisis aid to increasingly desperate sole parent families — have spoken publicly against the cuts. But, in recent years, churches have been more likely to mobilise their flocks to protest against abortion rights than to support the right of single mothers to a liveable income and secure housing.

And the labour movement has been almost completely silent. Williams says most unions don’t cover most working single mothers — 60% of the 80,000 people cut off PPS by Gillard were working — because they work in mostly casual or precarious jobs.

Williams said: “I work part-time and I know of many sole parents with two or three casual jobs. It’s so hard to find flexibility to work and still be a parent to your kids. I also think [lack of union support] is probably because unions are mostly run by men so it's not even a blip on their radar, given that 85% of sole parents are women.”

So is it any wonder that single mothers feel their isolation so keenly? Williams says PPPNN has worked with other sole parents groups to organise three nationally coordinated protests against the cuts. The rallies were passionate, she says, but not large.

She said: “We promoted them heavily … but sole parents are in survival mode and if you’re working three jobs or you don’t have transport you just can’t get to a rally. We’ve also done email blitzes, but it’d be nice to get some sort of a reply.”

She’s looking forward to the March in March rally, and she’s already designed her placard. I thanked her for taking the time to talk despite her own housing problem.

“I’m resilient,” she said, with a smile.”