Sole parents: caught in a poverty trap

Issue 

By Anthony Brown

US President Bill Clinton joined a long list of public figures when he recently attacked sole mothers for allegedly bludging off society.

In his January State of the Union address, Clinton vowed to track down and penalise sole mothers who, he claimed, abuse the US social welfare system and rip off taxpayers.

But criticism of sole parents is not confined to the US. Here in Australia, how many times have we heard that single mothers get pregnant so that they can get the dole and not have to work?

Or that sole parents are at the top of the social welfare ladder when it comes to handouts? Or that most sole parents are teenage women opting out of study or work so that they can live on Australia's "benevolent" social welfare system, which the rest of us have to foot the bill for?

These myths hide bitter truths.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS, 1994), in 1991, 16.6% of Australian families were sole parent.

Although many sole parents are teenagers, most are either divorced or separated. For example, in 1986, 61% of sole parents in Australia were divorced or separated.

Queensland Council of Social Services (QCOSS) director Peter Walsh believes the "she only got pregnant to get social welfare" label is unfair and unjust.

"What we're seeing is the effects of changes in relationships and a changing attitude socially. There are some real myths out there that there are these young women running around having babies to get money, and that's quite incorrect", Walsh said.

As for living off the fat of the social welfare system, the reality is that most sole parents live below the poverty line. Sixty-three per cent of sole-parent families in Australia are in the lowest 20% of family incomes, compared to 12% of couple families with children (ABS 1994).

"We know, for example, that more than half of all sole parents [in Australia] live below the poverty line. For sole parent families with three or more children, the likelihood of being in poverty jumps to 75%. So if you're a sole parent, you've got between a 58% chance and a 75% chance of being in poverty", Walsh said.

The poverty line is a measure calculated in 1972 during the Commonwealth Commission of Inquiry into Poverty (chaired by Professor Ronald Henderson from Melbourne's Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research) and updated every quarter since.

The line is based on how much a family of two adults and two dependent children need to live comfortably. This benchmark is then used to calculate the poverty lines for single people and families.

At the end of 1994, the poverty line for a single parent with one child was about $274 per week.

"It goes up to $447 for a single parent with four children. Basically, the costs involved in caring and looking after children substantially increase that poverty line. Hence sole parents with more than one child are more likely to be living below the poverty line", Walsh said.

According to QCOSS, most sole parents have to live off social security simply because they are either caring full time for small children or because they are discriminated against when they look for work.

Of the 379,000 dependent children in sole parent families in Australia in 1992, 56% did not have an employed parent (ABS 1994).

According to ABS, the unemployment rate for one-parent families is more than three times that for husband and wife couples.

Sole parents are entitled to a fortnightly Department of Social Security payment called the sole parent pension. This is provided to a sole parent who has a dependent child aged 16 years or under or an older child attracting child disability allowance.

It works out at $321.60 a fortnight plus a $5.20 pharmaceutical allowance.

Sole parents are also entitled to a family payment, which is paid in two parts: basic family payment and additional family payment. This is supposed to help with raising children.

At current rates, basic family payment is $21.70 per child a fortnight for the first three children and $23.90 a fortnight for every other child.

The additional family payment is $67.20 a fortnight for each child under 13 and $94.10 for each child 13-15. The additional family payment also includes a guardian allowance paid at a flat rate of $30.10 a fortnight.

In addition, the department pays rent assistance if sole parents are paying over $82.20 a fortnight in rent.

Sole parents with one child under 13 receive a payment of $445.80 per fortnight — $222.90 a week. If they are paying $300 a fortnight in rent, they can also receive about $76.20 a fortnight in rental assistance, giving them a total income of about $261 a week.

This is about $13 under the Henderson poverty line.

For a sole parent with four children (two aged under 13 and two over 13), it works out to about $430 per week with rental assistance (for rent of about $300 a fortnight), or about $17 under the poverty line.

The Brisbane-based Young Parents Program disputes that sole parents do not want to work. That view assumes that mothers are not workers and denies that raising children is a difficult and worthwhile job.

The program's coordinator, Mary Philip, told Green Left Weekly that it is difficult for sole parents to find work for two reason.

"Firstly, they are parents. Their prime responsibility is to care for their children. Secondly, if they're young sole parents like the ones I work with in my program, lots of them have had their education or their employment interrupted with pregnancy, so it's very difficult to access child-care and get back to work. People don't say that about someone who's married: 'Why doesn't that person get back to work?' I think sole parents do have the right to be there for their children", Philip said.

Founded in 1986 as an initiative of social work staff at Brisbane's Royal Women's Hospital, the program offers support services to young parents.

The Young Parents Program points out that in the 1991-92 financial year, Department of Social Security expenditure on sole parents was only 11% of its total budget.

The program argues that taxpayers should be more concerned about the rapid decline in corporate tax. Between 1965 and 1985, corporate tax fell from about 16% to 9% of total tax revenue, whereas the tax share of individual taxpayers increased from 35% to 45%.

According to QCOSS, the federal government offers major companies a wide range of tax concessions and exemptions, so that, for example, in 1987 the Bond Corporation paid 8.95% tax MIM 5% and Qintex no tax.

Philip believes the myths about sole parents lead to gross discrimination against them.

"That seems to be the story all the time with the young sole parents we work with, and it comes from all sorts of quarters. Initially, our young parents encounter it through the education system, which is often not terribly supportive when they become pregnant when they're still at high school. It carries over when they try to find appropriate housing.

"It's always there, of course, with employment. Sometimes government welfare programs could be a little bit more understanding of sole parents, and not place such restrictions on them, such as they have to live in a certain way and have to report back all the time. Those things do make it very difficult for sole parents and contribute to and reinforce those attitudes that they're less desirable members of the community", she said.

QCOSS believes that a number of measures are needed to tackle the poverty of sole parents, chief among them to provide public housing.

"Private rental costs make a significant increase to the overall cost of living, and those single parents who are able to access housing, for example, have a significant drop in their incidence of poverty. So public housing is a critical factor, particularly for sole parents, in alleviating poverty", Walsh said.

"I think in Queensland in particular we need to do more about increasing our stock of available public housing for sole parents."

According to ABS figures (1994), sole parent families are more likely to be renting accommodation than couple families, with 54% of one-parent families renting compared to 20% of couples with children.

A further 14% of sole-parent families live with another family compared to 3% of couple families with children.

According to the Queensland Housing and Local Government Department, about 20,000 Queensland families are on the state's public housing waiting list. Green Left contacted the department and asked how many sole parents were on this list. To date the department has not replied.

But the fact that most sole parents are either renting or living with other families suggests that many are looking for public housing.

A 1993 federal government-commissioned report on public housing found that people on waiting lists were often forced to live in small, poor quality private rental premises costing considerably more than they could afford.

QCOSS would also like special transport concessions for sole parents. ABS figures indicate that sole parent families are less likely to have access to a car than two parent families. For example, 21% of sole mother families have no car, compared to 2.6% of couple families with children.

This means that many sole parent families depend on public transport to do their shopping, bring their children to school, look for work and so on.

"I think we need to be looking at how we can make energy costs more efficient and cheaper. It's often the case that it only takes one or two unexpected bills to tip not just sole parents, but anybody living on a tight and fixed income, over the edge.

"I think we need to be looking at the expansion of some of the innovative labour market programs that are trying to bridge the divide between child-care and access to employment for sole parents. The reality is that there are many sole parents who want to get back into the labour force, but their opportunities to do that are severely restrained through lack of child-care, through lack of transport and through lack of resources generally", Walsh said.

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