In the lead-up to the federal election, talk of balancing the budget, jobs and growth are centre.
Amid rising unemployment and job insecurity, single parents continue to face both a job market unforgiving of parenting responsibilities and parenting payments that have been consistently attacked and eroded — framed by the false narrative of providing incentives to return to work and finding necessary budget savings.
The starkest reminder of this remains Labor's decision, under then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2012, to implement cuts to single parent payments, moving sole parents onto the unemployment payment, Newstart, when their youngest turns eight, leaving sole parents between $60 and $160 a week worse off. These cuts were passed on the same day Gillard made her famous misogyny speech.
The National Council for Single Mothers and their Children (NCSMC) reported that: “Single mother families are overrepresented in the areas of poverty, hardship, deprivation, violence and inequality.” The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) 2015 report on inequality in Australia reported that one third of sole-parent families live in poverty.
Labour opposition leader Bill Shorten, appearing on ABC's 7.30 on March 15, said Labor's decision to cut single parent payments to mothers was a “mistake”. He noted that Labor's families shadow minister Jenny Macklin was consulting with various sectors of the community in preparation for the release of a “Growing Together” report (recently released) to address inequality in poverty.
But, despite the rhetoric, neither “Growing Together” nor Shorten have formally committed to reversing the cuts. Labor has contributed to the passing of cuts due to begin in July, including axing the school kids bonus worth $430 a year for each primary school child and $856 a year for each secondary student. This is a significant support for those on low incomes, helping them with educational necessities like school uniforms, excursions and computers.
The income support bonus, a twice yearly payment of $111.50 to assist with rising living costs such as utility bills, is also being axed. The large family supplement of $321 a year for families for their fourth and subsequent children will also be cut. By cutting these entitlements, the government is making budget savings from those who can least afford it.
Further cuts waiting to be passed by the Senate include end of year supplements for family payment recipients and cuts to Family Tax Benefit B for couples when their youngest child turns 13.
Scott Morrison, when he was minister for families (he is now Treasurer) said the cuts will allow the $3.5 billion savings necessary to fund the Coalition's childcare package.
But while the Coalition is sourcing funding for its childcare package with attacks on some of the most vulnerable sections of society, early childhood educators, in a “feminised” industry in which women form the bulk of the largely underpaid and undervalued workforce, are in the midst of a campaign for the same rights and pay as other educators.
ACOSS reports that “the lack of indexation to wages since 2009 has already resulted in a cut of approximately $20 a week a child in family payments for families on the lowest incomes”.
The continued attacks on single mothers and family payments by both major parties effectively underpin the driving down of wages and conditions in a landscape which sees 11 job-seekers for every available job.
It also contributes to a gender pay gap that is the widest in 20 years. A healthy welfare system provides not just a supportive safety net for all, but also benefits workers and was won by social justice movements.
For women specifically, who make up 91% of sole parent households, economic independence is fundamental to safety. With more than one woman a week being killed due to domestic violence, inadequate welfare payments mean women are forced to stay in violent relationships.
Terese Edwards from NCSMC said: “If her youngest child is eight years or older she will be forced onto Newstart, a payment that is so low that even if she qualifies for assistance with a bond she won't gain a house in the private rental market. She will most likely encounter a waiting list for crisis or affordable housing. Newstart further harms women impacted by domestic violence.
“Newstart is not a new start for sole parent families. It prohibits them from working their way out of poverty. Sole parents who had some paid work such as on-call, part-time or causal were the hardest hit by the decision to force them onto Newstart when their youngest child celebrates their eighth birthday.
“These women have reported unrecoupable losses of up to $140 per week due to rules that only allow a mum to keep $51 per week [while on Newstart]. Compare this to a mum with three children who can earn and keep $118 per week while on a parenting payment [because Newstart tapers off quicker when recipients work]. This amount is the difference between keeping a roof over the family's head and food on the table.”
With no evidence to suggest cutting payments provides any further incentive to work and the big end of town left largely untouched by consecutive budgets, the logic behind the cutting of family and sole parent payments as necessary remains deeply flawed.