ParentsNext program discriminates against sole parents

Sole parenting is tough, especially if you also work.

ParentsNext is a new Department of Human Services (DHS) program that was rolled out nationally last July for about 75,000 sole parents who are receiving Parenting Payment.

The program is compulsory for all single parents whose youngest child has turned five, unless they are living in a regional town with no employment opportunities.

When the youngest child turns six, the parent — overwhelmingly mothers — will remain on Parenting Payment but will be required to begin a Job Plan, which includes looking for work, working part-time, studying or doing an approved activity. After the child turns eight, sole parents will be transferred to Newstart Allowance to search for employment.

The DHS website describes ParentsNext providers as helping sole parents to “set study and work goals; set a participation plan; meet regularly; and help access services in the local community”. The providers are private training and employment companies.

I am a single mother who has part-time work as a sole trader. My income is varied and sporadic so my Parenting Payment provides stability during periods of unemployment.

I was contacted by Centrelink, who outlined the new program. They informed me of the date and time they would interview me by phone to assess my eligibility for the program. The interview took half an hour.

The questions ranged from my level of education and English abilities, to transport options. Some questions were voluntary, such as criminal past, medical conditions and status of visas.

My "obligations" for ParentsNext are to report my income fortnightly, meet with my provider every few months and set “goals”.

At the second meeting with my provider, l was informed l may need to include an activity as part of my ParentsNext obligations. I need to identify an activity that helps me up-skill. It was suggested I volunteer to gain additional experience — an unrealistic option given my limited time, due to working and rearing children.

In 2013, then-Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduced the bill to make sole parents with a child under eight years move on to Newstart Allowance. The bill was passed the same day Gillard delivered her famous misogyny speech.

Labor leader Bill Shorten has now disowned the policy, admitting the party did the wrong thing. Labor acknowledges that the Newstart Allowance is low, but has made no commitment to raise the payment if elected in the upcoming federal election — it will merely review it.

Once again, women are being discriminated against and made to work harder with additional responsibilities of caring for children. The realities of sole parenting are tough, especially if you also work. Many sole parents do not receive financial support from the absent parent.

The Child Support scheme is flawed, as is the ParentsNext program. Women work hard on a daily basis to provide for and support their children.

The government has introduced these programs that put additional pressure on women, who must once more prove their worth and adhere to unrealistic expectations just to receive meagre government financial support.

Ella Buckland, a sole parent affected by the ParentsNext program, is helping to organise a campaign calling on the “Australian government [to] make ParentsNext voluntary”. She has started a Change.org petition under that theme.

She explained: “Since starting this campaign, I've heard from many women who have been targeted by this program. All women are confused, angry, terrified and humiliated.

“The politicians say they are ‘helping mums return to work’, but what’s really happening is that the unpaid work these women already do is being undervalued. Worse than that, it’s being construed as ‘dole bludging’.

“Many sole parents are trapped by the system. They have no support from the other parent. The Child Support system is flawed, so a lot of absent parents can get out of paying any money towards the wellbeing of their child. Interestingly, it is the wealthy absent parents who are most successful at hiding money.

“The ParentsNext providers are motivated by incentives — the government pays them for each parent they ‘sign up’, pays them a regular amount for each person ‘on their books’ and they get a big payment when a parent ‘finds work’. But the women receive no ongoing financial help.

"The program should be voluntary and bonuses should be paid to the clients themselves. The program should be incentivised, not punitive."

Even the agencies contracted to administer the ParentsNext program have urged the federal government to overhaul the controversial scheme from which parents are being referred to charities because their welfare payments have been wrongly suspended.

The providers have urged the department to remove ParentsNext from the Targeted Compliance Framework (TCF), a system that results in welfare recipients having their payments suspended and eventually facing sanctions if they do not meet certain activities.

The Senate voted in December to conduct a wide-ranging review of the program, including its aims, whether it should be compulsory and whether participants should be subject to the same penalties that are imposed on other welfare recipients.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said the inquiry, which was co-sponsored by the Greens and Labor, would allow the Senate to understand whether the program is the “best way to help parents”.

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