Single mother: Our crumbling safety net

September 9, 2016
Single mothers protesting their financial insecurity.

The responsibility of governments to help with the costs of child-rearing has been a part of Australian social policy since the early 1920s, when the first widows’ pension (1926) and child endowment (1927) schemes were introduced.

Australia has recognised this principle since the Harvester judgment of 1907, which raised the issue of how much income was appropriate for a family with child-rearing responsibilities. For most of the 20th century, this was recognised in taxation policy, as well as in income support policies.

In the 1960s, when Australia enjoyed full employment and virtually no inflation, the Widows’ Pension was expanded to include divorcees and “deserted wives”. Since 1973, all sole mothers have enjoyed a safety net to raise their children.

The Gough Whitlam government introduced pension status for all sole parent families to provide assistance to supporting mothers who did not qualify for the Widow’s Pension. This benefit was later extended in 1977 to include single parents of either gender. The “supporting mothers’ benefit” helped many women escape difficult or violent relationships and also reduced poverty among children.

Then PM John Howard brought in the “Welfare to Work” package in 2006, which introduced changes to pensions for sole parents and people with disabilities. Minister for Workforce Participation Peter Dutton argued that “people’s self-esteem is much greater if they are off welfare and into work”.

The Howard government changed the name from Sole Parent Pension to Parenting Payment Single. Those who were already receiving this pension at the time were “grandfathered”, or allowed to continue to receive Parenting Payment Single pension. Howard’s policy only applied to new sole parent families.

Poverty and violence

Former PM Julia Gillard said she wanted to bring equality to sole parent payments. We “grandfathered” sole parents had no idea we were on differing payment rates. Why did Gillard not lift those living in poverty on the Newstart allowance up to the more realistic living allowance of Parenting Payment if that was her aim? Instead, she introduced a bill to move sole parents onto Newstart the same day as she gave her famous misogyny speech.

Women who have lived with a violent partner are more likely than other women to experience financial difficulty, and many sole parents experience poverty as a result of family violence.

Women can also suffer financial abuse, in the form of legal abuse — ex-partners forcing lengthy family court proceedings — lack of child support payments and debt accumulated from the relationship that the sole parent is left to pay off.

The trauma of family violence can result in poor mental and physical health. This may include the increased risk of depression and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, loss of self-confidence, isolation and, for some, the misuse of alcohol and drugs. Support is crucial in helping sole parents regain their health and wellbeing.

The Anglicare Housing Affordability Snapshot has regularly shown that only 1% of rental properties are affordable for those on welfare incomes. Many live under extreme housing stress with most of their income going on rental or mortgage payments. Many also experience discrimination as a sole parent family and find it very difficult to obtain housing.

Living in rental accommodation cannot guarantee security. Landlords can raise the rent and properties can be sold. Many sole parents do not have the funds required to move.

Sole parents tend to have lower educational levels than partnered parents. The ABS reports that in 2006, 15% more sole parents than partnered parents had left school before year 12, while twice as many partnered parents than single parents held a bachelor degree or higher qualification.

The same report also said lone parents were more likely to be studying than partnered parents, mostly part-time, and mostly at TAFEs or higher education institutions.

This makes nonsense of claims that single parents are not taking independent measures to improve their lives. Even mature-age women have chosen to return to study to improve their chances of gaining secure employment in a competitive labour market. In doing so, they have gained significant improvements in self-awareness, self-esteem and social skills.

Sadly, such progress has been short-lived. Jobs, Education and Training Child Care Fee Assistance fees were raised significantly with the parental contribution rising from 10 cents an hour to $1 an hour. Now the eligibility for this payment has changed. To receive this payment, you need to be participating in the Helping Young Parents or Supporting Jobless Families schemes in one of 10 local government areas and assistance is now given for only 20 days instead of 26 weeks.

Cuts currently stalled

The cuts to the Pension Education Supplement are currently stalled in parliament. These cuts will force some parents to give up their dream of education, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and low-paid employment.

Alternative pathways provided by the Work for the Dole scheme have not given sole parents any real work experience that can help them gain a better position. Paid work experience would be a better option. This would provide an incentive to recipients to continue in the role. Employers should be encouraged to develop sole parents’ skills, thus leading to better productivity. The new under 25’s internship is a step in the right direction, however, participants should be of any age and paid at award wages.

Job Network providers need to work with individual parents and focus on their strengths to find employment that would actually suit their needs. Sadly, Job Network providers have been given too much power which they regularly abuse. They now have the power to cut payments if recipients are not meeting their mutual obligation requirements, or if they deem an interview as not productive.

Another of the many limitations facing single parents is time constraints imposed by the act of parenting. If the government wants to force sole parents into work, it must also encourage businesses to create more job opportunities within school hours. Job sharing is a great idea and should be encouraged, as it provides the ability to swap days with the job share partner when children are sick or have functions at their school.

At the same time there is also a need for more flexible child care arrangements, including weekend care for those doing shift work. Full-time positions are not a good option for sole parents as it limits the time they can spend with their children to help them with their homework and enable them to participate in after-school activities.

More cuts to come

Parents have faced ongoing uncertainty of whether the federal government’s Childcare Package will be passed in parliament. It has been stalled in the Senate due to its unfair linkage to cuts to Family Tax Benefits. Family Tax Benefit Part B payments will end when the youngest child turns 13.

The new Childcare Package relies on punishing low income and sole parent families. More than 136,000 single parents stand to lose Family Tax Benefit payments and end of year subsidies under the government’s new family payments plan. Labor’s plan in the previous federal election was to halve the Family Tax Benefit Part A supplement payment to those with a family income above $100,000 and continue to support those on low incomes.

The School Kids Bonus, Low Income Support Bonus and the Low Income Superannuation Contribution will be paid for the last time this year. The government also wants to remove the Energy Supplement — originally introduced as compensation for the carbon tax — for all new welfare recipients resulting in a loss of $4 a week for Newstart recipients and $8 a week for pensioners.

The Newstart payment is dismally low and has not increased in real terms for more than 20 years.

Sole parent stigmatisation

At this time in our nation's history, it seems we are going backwards. The protections provided for vulnerable single parents have been with us for nearly a century but now the support they have provided is rapidly crumbling.

Negative propaganda aimed at welfare recipients has made it easy for politicians of all persuasions to hide from their moral responsibility to protect vulnerable people. That propaganda has also driven single parents into social exile.

Now they must endure not only the challenge of facing the rising cost of living with a diminishing income, but also fend off unfounded suggestions that they are immoral addicts and cheats. Imagine the impact this has on these parents and their children.

To make matters even worse, the government's idea that they can use punishment to teach people the value of work is seriously flawed. Research has shown that reducing welfare payments does not increase work activity. It has always proved the opposite. It will not create new jobs out of thin air. All it will do is push single parents further into poverty and depression.

With increased domestic violence in our community, our government and community organisations need to get serious about supporting sole parents and their children. We need a safety net back to give us a chance to rebuild our lives.

Children are the future. Whitlam recognised this when he said: “We are all diminished as citizens when any of us are poor. Poverty is a national waste as well as an individual waste.”

We should be striving for a 21st century world where all children, and all parents, are valued and supported.

[Kerry Arch is a single parent activist.]

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