Australia became one of the first countries in the world to introduce a single mothers’ benefit in 1973. This was extended to single fathers in 1977.
The single mothers’ benefit was an important reform, helping many women escape from difficult or violent relationships and reducing poverty among children.
However, since neoliberal economic policy became the new “normal” in the 1980s, both the Liberal and Labor parties have made it increasingly difficult for people to receive welfare payments, have deliberately kept payments below a liveable amount and have increased the number of people excluded from benefits and pensions.
The sole parent pension used to be paid to sole parents until their youngest child turned 16. The John Howard Coalition government changed this so that new applicants on sole parents payments would be paid only until the youngest child turned eight.
The Julia Gillard Labor government has now extended this to include existing sole parents who receive the parenting payment, so that they too are forced onto the lower Newstart Allowance when their children reach the age of eight.
Sole parents have now also lost access to other benefits, such as the pension education supplement, cheaper medicines for the children and subsidies for childcare.
On top of this, sole parents who are working part-time will have their Newstart reduced at a faster rate for each dollar earned than was the case with the parenting payment.
There is a desperate need for the Newstart Allowance to be immediately increased by $100 a week and then for all pensions and benefits to be raised to a liveable amount. But this is not the full solution for single parents.
Single parents have a right to receive a parenting payment. Forcing all sole parents into the workforce when their youngest child turns eight can be a big problem.
It is often difficult to find work that fits around school hours, and a sole parent working normal hours will have to leave their children home alone or put them in before and after school care, which is expensive for families on low incomes.
It would also prevent the child from taking part in after-school activities such as swimming, football, or dancing. This increases the isolation of sole parent families as their children are unable to take part in inclusive community activities.
Sole parents who work full-time are often exhausted, being away from home up to 10 hours a day, and then coming home to do household chores. This leaves little or no time for parents to spend with their children.
The cuts will leave some households $100 a week worse off, and come at time when unemployment is rising, making work more difficult to find. This forces single parents and their young children to live in poverty. Some single mothers will be forced into sex work as a result.
The 2012 Poverty In Australia report by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) reveals that 2,265,000 people, including 575,000 children, are still living below the poverty line in Australia.
The traditional formula used in Australia for the poverty line is 50% of median disposable income. In Britain and in the European Union the poverty line is considered to be 60% of median disposable income. If this formula is used, the ACOSS report says there would be 3,705,000 people, including 869,000 children, living in poverty.
Poverty makes women vulnerable. There are many reported instances where single mothers are taken advantage of by sleazy landlords and real estate agents when they cannot pay the rent.
An Anglicare report released on October 16 revealed that about 22,000 adults cannot afford to eat for a whole day most weeks, and almost one in 10 households report that their children often did not eat for a whole day.
At a time when Australia is in the midst of a mining boom, this is appalling. Mining companies, banks and other big corporations are making record profits and their CEOs are getting obscenely high pay packages.
The ACOSS report found that women make up 53.8% of people in poverty. The attacks on sole parents’ benefits will greatly increase the numbers of women in poverty. This shows the utter hypocrisy of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s rhetoric about sexism and misogyny.
The Socialist Alliance calls for:
· the immediate reversal of all the attacks on welfare payments, in particular restoring the parenting payment for single parents.
· the Newstart Allowance to be immediately raised to the level of the age pension and all welfare benefits to be raised to the level of a living wage automatically indexed to real cost-of-living rises.
Poverty is a crime for which both Labor and Liberal parties in government are responsible. In government, both parties have boosted the incomes of the rich in a country where the richest 20% already own two-thirds of the wealth and the poorest 20% are left to share just 1% of the wealth.
To pay for the urgently needed measures to address the shocking poverty numbers, the Socialist Alliance calls for an increase in the tax rates for corporations to 49% (the level it was until 1988), the reversal of recent personal tax cuts for the highest income bracket and for bringing the mining and banking industries under community ownership and control.
[Sue Bolton is a Socialist Alliance councillor on the Moreland Council in Melbourne.]