Why I’m a sole parent activist

I have been a single parent for 10 years now. My children are aged 13 and 16. I now face the challenges of raising teenage children on my own, which can leave me at times mentally and physically drained. They are good boys though and I am proud to be their mother.

As single parents we endure discrimination in numerous places, in the workplace, while applying for rental homes, obtaining loans, in the media, from the public and even from some friends and family, but worse still, at the hands of our politicians.

ACTIONS OF GOVERNMENTS

In 2006, the John Howard government started moving single parents onto Newstart when their youngest child turned 8, while those that became single parents prior to this date were able to remain on the higher Parenting Payment Single allowance.

Only those that applied after 2006 were moved to the lower Newstart payment under the excuse that they needed to look for paid work when their youngest turned 6. However, all those left on the higher payment were also obliged to sign up to look for work when their youngest turned 6.

In January 2013, the Julia Gillard government moved more than 100,000 single parents off the Parenting Payment Single allowance, mostly over to Newstart. The claim was that these recipients left on Parenting Payment Single prior to 2006 should also find employment.

This move cost single parents $65 to $135 in their weekly income. Women were caught unaware of the changes and could no longer afford the homes they were privately renting, and had to break leases and move to cheaper accommodation.

Others defaulted on their mortgages and/or on any loans they held. Many lost the roof over their heads and became homeless, forced into refuges and even to living in their cars, before joining already-bursting public housing lists.

Welfare agencies haven’t been able to keep up with the demand and have been turning away up to 20 families a day who are told they are only allowed three visits a year. Women in rural communities have become even more isolated and marginalised, with noticeably less support and opportunities than those in metropolitan communities and are able to seek assistance only twice a year.

The move to Newstart was to encourage single mothers back into the workforce. But 68% of sole parents were already in some form of paid work and 27% were studying.

What was not considered was the availability of work in the economy, family responsibilities that might interfere with full-time employment, the availability of childcare, and social responsibility for children.

ACCESS TO CHILD CARE AND HEALTH CARE

Another problem for single parents is the affordability and accessibility of childcare for those who are lucky enough to gain employment.

Then there is the issue of available casual childcare spaces for sole parents attending job interviews or those working odd hours in casual positions.

Waiting lists for public healthcare are lengthy and single parents can no longer afford private health cover. Going to specialists is too expensive so parents and children go without needed specialised care.

Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews wants to be able to stop welfare payments if parents refuse to take a job that is more than 90 minutes from home. No thought has gone into single parents that might have to rush back these distances to sick children at school or in childcare.

For those that do find full-time employment, they would be away from their homes up to 11 hours or more each day. When would the children get to see their mother? Children as young as 12 years of age are expected to return to empty homes each night.

They will have no help with their homework, very late dinners and the loss of after-school activities. With obesity on the rise, the loss of after-school activities will only cause more health problems and children will not enjoy the social benefits of sport either.

STAY-AT-HOME?

Caring for one's own children at home is not considered to be real “work”, although it is considered to be “work” to care for someone else's children.

Reliance on social security programs is once again referred to as "dependence", although reliance on a husband's income is not. Increasingly it is considered unacceptable behaviour to have government support, but acceptable for middle class welfare by the family tax benefit for those earning $150,000 a year and the paid parental scheme of up to $75,000 a year.

MONEY WELL SPENT?

Forcing people into a Controlled Income Management scheme, which was introduced in the Northern Territory, is now being expanded across Australia to single parents. How are these vulnerable parents supposed to learn to be self-sufficient with this idea of control? It's demeaning and lowers self-esteem.

This scheme costs between $4500 to almost $8000 a person, each year. This money could be better spent on programs that can improve their self-worth such as job skill training, increasing numeracy and literacy skills, and parenting courses.

PAY

Australian unions have fought for a “family wage” since early last century, which kept men's wages higher than women’s and limited the access of married women and mothers to the paid labour force.

The gender gap per hours pay is still 18%; it is not closing and sometimes seems to be widening instead of decreasing, which is a shame considering this has been highlighted as blatant discrimination for many years.

This is clearly a feminist issue and needs to be picked up by women’s groups as separate from just the question of the level of Newstart.

PARENTING PAYMENT

We are sole parents. We need to have payments that are higher than normal income support for individuals looking for work or studying because we already have a job that takes up time and energy.

So a payment needs to be high enough to allow parents to work shorter hours or study and still get some extra public support to give them the top up to at least a minimum wage payment.

If they need to be there when children are sick, after school and in emergencies, they may have difficulties in finding the right job. All this needs to be taken into account in shaping the payments that will support parents and their children decently.

I was one of the recipients who moved onto Newstart in January last year. I was devastated. I was sent into a spiralling depression that lasted three weeks. I found a single parent support group online, became active and started to raise awareness of what had happened to us.

Now I run several Facebook groups ranging from housing, Centrelink advice, a single parent forum, a single parent small business and bartering group and my main activist group United Sole Parents of Australia.

We have run petitions, held rallies and appeared on many television and radio shows. We write to politicians, magazines and anyone who will listen.

Our job is to change the perceptions that single parents are lazy bums and welfare cheats. We work, we study and we do the best we can to improve our lives for ourselves and for our children.

I saw the isolation of single parents and I am now trying to build local groups so single parents can network and gain support from each other. I hope to arrange guest speakers to come and empower the women in my groups.

While I have been researching the changes that have taken place, I noticed that these changes weren't just happening in Australia but in other countries as well. Cuts have been taking place in Ireland, England and even the Netherlands.

The sole parents in these countries were also given little notice. No thought has been given to the impact of these cuts and only of the money governments can save at the cost of children.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

Women suffering domestic violence have limited choices: either they leave a violent relationship and enter a life of poverty on Newstart, or they stay and endure the risk of permanent disability or even death to themselves or their children.

A return to Parenting Payment Single is desperately needed. Women need to feel society and welfare can support their safety, through fair benefits, not charity.

The 2013 Anglicare Australia Rental Affordability Snapshot report showed that in April, when the Anglicare network surveyed more than 56,000 rental properties across Australia, less than 1% of the properties listed were suitable for anyone on Newstart allowance, parenting payment, aged pension or disability support pension.

Single parents are paying 30% to 90% of their income to have a home for their children. This is not acceptable.

Since these cuts have taken place, they have opened my eyes to the many injustices and discriminations that single parent women are facing. Many don’t have the courage to speak, so I chose to be a voice for them and bring to light what needs to be said and heard.

[This article is based on a speech Kerry Arch gave to the International Women’s Day rally in Sydney on March 8.]

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