The recent Australian Council of Social Service report into poverty has found one third of sole parents live in poverty.
Many sole parents are suffering after being switched from Parenting Payment Single to the much lower Newstart Allowance. Under former prime minister Julia Gillard, about 100,000 sole parents were switched to the lower payment.
Pas Forgione, from the Anti-Poverty Network South Australia, spoke to Kathy Lee, who founded the Single Parents Action Group.
How did becoming a sole parent change your life?
At the time of my marriage breakdown, we were running our own business and also paying off our own home. I lost my home and also my business, and was left to raise four children alone. At this stage, I was also pregnant with our fifth child. Because of this, I was unable to gain employment, and unable to process the fact that my world had fallen apart.
They say if you can't feed them, don't breed them. Fact: most sole parents did not choose to be sole parents. There are many reasons [why] a parent can find themselves in this situation.
When the legislation came in that I needed to start looking for work once my child turned six [in 2006], I was exempted due to my son's health problems. Even though I was exempt, I still tried to find work and thought it would be a good idea to use my volunteer experience to approach my son's school and see if I could get a position as a support officer. Although the school thought this was a good idea, and I had the experience required, they denied my application, because it then meant they would need to pay me for what they had up until then been getting for free.
How did the changes to Parenting Payment Single by the Gillard government at the start of last year affect you?
At the end of 2012, I was taken off Parenting Payment Single and placed on Newstart. This change had a huge impact on my situation. I lost $260 per fortnight and found day-to-day life extremely difficult. I could no longer afford my rent, food, utility bills, clothes, medical costs, glasses for my son, public transport costs — and I became extremely stressed. My plans fell apart and I had no choice but to go into survival mode.
I had previously attended TAFE and completed Cert II and III in Women's Education to allow me to take up the courses that I wanted to do. The changes were a total disaster for me; it killed any chance of me continuing my studies.
I had to give up my rental property and go into share accommodation. This did not go well, my son suffered, and so did I.
I was eventually able to secure a property. It is a modest place and costs me $250 a week in rent. I am left with very little for anything else after paying rent. Rent more or less takes all of my Newstart, which leaves me with a family payment of just over $400 per fortnight to cover everything else. My health has suffered greatly. I do not sleep, and rarely eat so my son can have a decent diet, and am constantly still expected to jump through all the usual hoops associated with being on Newstart.
How have other sole parents coped with being shifted onto Newstart?
Well, I have heard about some people dumpster diving for food, and others going back to violent situations, or, like me, sharing a house and having it turn out badly. Many were thinking of handing their kids over to welfare. It has been hard to listen to mothers talk about giving up their kids because they just had no idea how they were going to feed them.
What have been your experiences of the Job Networks?
They tell me I need to either work, volunteer, or study at least 15 hours per week and then, when I find something I want to study, due to no campus in Adelaide [offering the course] I have to do it online, they say it is not good enough. So I either have to forget what I want to study and find something mundane to study at a campus, or go ahead with what I want to do and transfer to Austudy [which is $50 a week lower than Newstart].
It is just cruel what they are doing and I now see why so many are giving up and just opting out.
What do you think are the future prospects of sole parents in Australia?
I fear it is only going to get worse, with charities running out of food to hand out and more slipping into poverty. Marching and protesting is not enough. We need to triple the numbers to even hope for the government to notice and we need other options and ways to help those that need it the most.
We need ways of providing immediate emotional and practical support to people — and not just for those that have been going through this for a bit, but more so for those that will be experiencing all this crap for the first time. They are the ones most at risk, they have no idea how to cope, or where to turn for help.
[Join S.P.A.G. Single Parents Action Group on facebook.]