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Harsh realities of a policy that moves more into poverty

Next week is anti-poverty week. But a new group of Australians have been preparing to be inducted into the halls of poverty. Legislation was finalised to move around 100,000 single parents - mostly women…

The Federal Government’s decision to move single parents onto a lower Newstart payment has been unpopular. This picture has been updated since publication. AAP

Next week is anti-poverty week. But a new group of Australians have been preparing to be inducted into the halls of poverty.

Legislation was finalised to move around 100,000 single parents - mostly women - with children aged between eight and fifteen from Parenting Payment (Single) to the lower Newstart Allowance. The changes will begin on 1 January, 2013.

The move consolidates the welfare to work policy commenced by the Coalition Government in 2006 which was continued by the Labor Government from 2007. The target of the policy is to promote workforce participation and to reduce reliance on welfare payments.

Prior to 2006, single parents could receive a Parenting Payment (single) until their youngest child turned sixteen. After 2006, all new claimants fell under new rules which meant that they were transferred to Newstart Allowance and required to look for paid employment when their youngest child turned eight.

However, those already receiving payments were exempt and allowed to continue payments until their youngest child turned sixteen. But they were required from 2007 to look for and undertake 15 hours work per week when the youngest child turned seven and more recently this has become six years of age.

This year, the Government changed its policy and announced in the 2012 Budget there would no longer be exemptions. Those who had been “grandfathered” under the old rules lost their protection.

The change was broadly opposed by the welfare sector although some groups such as the Brotherhood of St Laurence supported it, subject to conditions, for reasons of equity and to encourage workforce participation, as outlined in its submission to a Senate Committee inquiry.

The principal problem with the change is the dramatic drop in income it entails. Newstart Allowance is a lower payment than Parenting Payment as the Department of Human Services table shows. Not only do families lose $65 per week, the income test is harsher – which means that claimants lose more of their income support payment for every extra dollar that they earn.

The inadequacy of Newstart Allowance has been well documented, such as by Professor Peter Whiteford in a recent article in the Conversation. Amidst the controversy over the payment, including the fact that it is the subject of a current Senate Inquiry, the change over for single parents at this time seems particularly harsh. While the argument for equity between pre- and post 2006 claimants is fair enough, “equity of poverty” is not much of an outcome for any public policy.

My own research on women in insecure work has included many single parents which said a lot about the relationship between being in a poorly paid, insecure job and being a single parent. Emphatically, it wasn’t because they lacked skills and experience - although of course in some cases this was a factor - just as it is for married women. Also to note, all were mature women who had been in long-term relationships and were divorced or separated.

More importantly though, it was simply very difficult to sustain a “good” job, generally a full-time job, while being the only parent. Problems were exacerbated when children had special needs. I was always struck by the high level of dedication to the parenting role of these women and the sacrifices they made.

This woman, Mary, was in fact a high-profile member of her community with a university degree:

“I have been a sole parent for 14 years now. Our priorities are our children and it has to be because you’re the sole adult in the household. Regardless of what age they are, they depend on you. The thing that stands out for me is that regardless of how many skills you have and how many degrees you have, or how ambitious or motivated you are, you have to compromise your ambitions because you are restricted by your child caring and rearing role because that is your first priority. So that you always need something (a job) that allows you the flexibility around your children’s hours when they are younger and then even as they get older… I have made a lot of compromises.”

In another article, I have described the ongoing disadvantages women face in the contemporary labour market, due to limited opportunities for access to well-paid and secure employment. This indeed stood out as a problem for women in my research. Another single parent, Jane, told me:

“The government brought in that people on the pension (parenting payment) had to be in the workforce but they wanted us to guarantee that we could do 15 hours a week but as a casual you can’t guarantee that…..I talked to the employer and said I need to do more permanent hours, Centrelink is on my back, is it possible to get it. I was very lucky…I got the 15…”

While she did get her 15 hours, she pointed to the problems of underemployment faced by many women in casual and part time work – around 10% of the female workforce. She also points to another problem with many casual jobs - unreliable and inconsistent work schedules.

Other women described how their working lives were conditioned by their children’s needs. Sarah wanted her job to be made permanent but had no success even after eight years with the same organisation and without it costing the organisation any more money:

When (my son) started school I was working and he got sick or got bullied, whatever, and he wouldn’t go to school, so it ended that I couldn’t maintain that (admin) job… so when the casual driving job came up, they said ‘do you want to do that? It’s more school hour friendly.’ So I do that. But when he is sick I just have to stay home and lose money."

The road is long and hard towards family-friendly working arrangements in jobs that pay a decent, living wage and offer good industrial rights and protections as the Australian Work and Life Survey of 3000 people shows.

Where women are raising children alone, the tensions between work and family are particularly pronounced. This has the effect of pushing them into lower paid, casual jobs. The current policy directed to the workforce participation of single parents must be supported by training and assistance in finding sustainable, decent jobs which fit with their children’s needs - and which, of course, serve to lift these families out of poverty.

This story was updated on May 27, 2013. The original picture has been removed at the request of the person photographed. The image shows a protest in front of Parliament House this year.

Join the conversation

29 Comments sorted by

  1. Marilyn Shepherd

    pensioner

    I became a single parent in 1973 as a result of rape by my best friends husband, I could not get an abortion, was pressured for months to have my daughter adopted out but refused to do so and taunted as a slut and slag for years over my decisions.

    When I did get back into work as an enrolled nurse trainee and nurse I had to have man around because there was little in the way of child care of any type and the work was brutal but all I could get.

    When my daughter was 3 she developed serious…

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  2. Riddley Walker

    .

    The ALP wonders why it is losing votes and members to the Greens.

    It is policies like this one, the failure on refugees, the failure to close Hazelwood, the determination to surplus (which we don't need) to the detriment of the most needy in our society.

    If the ALP ever gets its soul back (and I hope it does), then it might stem the flow of losses.

    http://greens.org.au/policies

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    1. Cheryl Howard

      writer

      In reply to Riddley Walker

      Yes, exactly. The Greens have the courage to stick to principles. Albeit they are not in governance. Nevertheless at least in the current circumstances the presence of the Greens allows the electorate to understand that principles can become real when people stand up for them.
      Some Labor MPs were prepared to argue against this bill in caucus. Two parliamentary committees have not completed their examination of the likely impacts of these changes.
      It grabs a few dollars toward a budget surplus from the most vulnerable women and children, potentially damaging their lives, beyond what it would have cost government to keep their parenting payment in place.

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    2. Andreas Jacques

      Manager

      In reply to Cheryl Howard

      I think the budgetary savings are a second order issue. Most important is that the welfare safety net is there to support those who are not able to support themselves. Once children are in full time schooling parents should be encouraged to move back into the workforce and this is what this policy is aiming to do.

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    3. Cheryl Howard

      writer

      In reply to Andreas Jacques

      My concern is that many single parents will not be able to earn enough to lift their family out of poverty and furthermore, the shift from parenting payment to Newstart, is a denial of their principle role, which is nurturing children who have only one parent on whom to depend. A parent's stress can become resentment of the children in their care when the value of their role is not being recognised socially. It is not just economic damage but psychological and emotional and the ultimate victims are the children.

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    4. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Andreas Jacques

      Andreas, this policy seems to me to be a policy aimed at punishing single parents that cannot find suitable work, rather than encouraging anyone back into the workforce. It is about appearing tough on the poor.

      I have a friend, a mother of 3 children, she is a single parent, and has worked as much as she is able in a casual job cleaning, (that is the only work available that is available for many single parents because). She has complied with every obligation that has been required of her by…

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    5. Andreas Jacques

      Manager

      In reply to Judith Olney

      Hi Judith, the government is addressing middle class welfare, for example, means testing the 30% private heath insurance rebate. This will save orders of magnitude more money that moving single parents onto newstart.

      They have also dramatically increased the tax free threshold which reduces the barriers to reentering employment by decreasing effective marginal tax rates.

      There has to be a balance between government support and personal responsibility. If a single parent can not support their own children, for the sake of the children it is right for there to be government support. However once all the children are in full time education I think the balance swings and the responsibility falls back on the parent to increase their contribution. If this doesn't happen, it is every other taxpayer that has to work harder so that single parents can spend more time with their children.

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    6. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Andreas Jacques

      I agree with what your saying Andreas, but this policy is not looking at what really are the barriers to single parents working, and one of the main barriers is a lack of childcare. As I said in my post below, in my town there is no after or before school care, for children, so this means that single parents can only work during school hours, and there are very few jobs that allow for that. It is illegal for parents to leave children at home alone, so there is no alternative for single parents but…

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    7. Andreas Jacques

      Manager

      In reply to Cheryl Howard

      Hi Cheryl, with a few exceptions, I think you are forgetting that having children is a choice. If an individual can not afford the time and money required to raise a child, then perhaps they should wait until they can. This will obviate any of the negative consequences that you mention.

      Of course perfect planning and rational behaviour does not always occur, and the safety net is there to look after children when parents can't do it themselves, but policy should encourage this to be the exception rather than the rule.

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    8. Cheryl Howard

      writer

      In reply to Andreas Jacques

      If only governments could resist attempts to be social manipulators based on a wrong assumption that their policies affect human behaviour.

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    9. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Andreas Jacques

      Andreas, most single parents become single parents because of a breakdown in a relationship, or the death of the other parent. Only a very small percentage of single parents have children when they are not in what they believe to be a committed, long term relationship. This is the myth perpetrated by dodgy current affairs shows, and the right wing media. Its the old, "if ya can't feed em, don't breed em" rubbish that gets blurted out even on this website now and then. It does not represent the reality…

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    10. Andreas Jacques

      Manager

      In reply to Judith Olney

      I agree entirely with your point that addressing childcare is an important part of this issue.

      However your claim that "Only a very small percentage of single parents have children when they are not in what they believe to be a committed, long term relationship" is not supported by the data:

      According to the ABS: death of a parent is a rare cause of single parent families (5%). "The break up of couples contributes most to the number of one-parent families; and births of children to unpartnered…

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    11. Andreas Jacques

      Manager

      In reply to Cheryl Howard

      How ironic: you comment is something I would expect to read from a tea party activist in the US.

      I find it hard to see how you can make a leftist critique that suggests government policy is ineffective in guiding human behaviour.

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    12. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Andreas Jacques

      Actually Andreas, I've read the data, and I am correct. This from the ABS web site.

      "<How are they formed?

      The break up of couples contributes most to the number of one-parent families; and births of children to unpartnered mothers most of the remainder. Most lone parents of children under 15 years are divorced or separated from a registered marriage (55% in 2003 according to the Family Characteristics Survey) and a small proportion are widowed (5%). A substantial proportion of lone parents…

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    13. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Andreas Jacques

      Also, the majority of female single parents are already working, the percentage is not quite as high as those female parents that are in a relationship, but considering that female single parents have the added burden of being the only parent for the children, this slight dip in percentage is not surprising. (see ABS website for the data that supports this).

      Single parents also have a higher level of participation in tertiary education than partnered parents, so in fact, single parents are taking responsibility for themselves and their children by increasing their education levels and skills so they can find employment.

      So the excuse that these changes to the single parent payment will encourage more single parents into work is a lie, these changes are simply a cynical grab for money by the government, to placate the conservative desire for a budget surplus, at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society.

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  3. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    "Where women are raising children alone, the tensions between work and family are particularly pronounced."

    Why are women raising children alone?

    Dunno.

    "The current policy directed to the workforce participation of single parents must be supported by training and assistance in finding sustainable, decent jobs which fit with their children’s needs – and which, of course, serve to lift these families out of poverty."

    Why should other mothers and fathers have to work longer hours to afford to pay more tax, so some women can have sustainable, decent jobs which fit with their children’s needs?

    Dunno.

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  4. Judith Olney

    Ms

    If single parents are forced onto Newstart allowance, will they be subject to the same requirements for job seeking, including having to take a job that does not fit with their family responsibilities, or risk being breached and lose that payment altogether? What about the endless pointless "appointments" at the job network provider?

    When or if these single parents find employment, who looks after the kids? Childcare centres in my town are full to bursting, and there is a very long waiting list…

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    1. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Judith Olney

      Another question, what happens to school age children during school holidays, with no available childcare, and no job I know of in my town that has anywhere near the holiday leave that school children get?

      The average annual leave that most people round here get is 4 weeks per year for full time workers, and 2 or less weeks for part time workers, casual workers get none at all, school children get upwards of 14 weeks, what are parents supposed to do with their kids during this time?

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    2. Veronica Sheen

      Research Associate, School of Social Sciences at Monash University

      In reply to Judith Olney

      Thank you, Judith for your valuable contribution. The issues you have raised are far from being satisfactorily resolved in public policy, placing undue burdens, pressures and impossible dilemmas on the shoulders of already struggling single parents - who simply want to do the best by their kids. VS

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    3. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Veronica Sheen

      Hi Veronica, thank you for writing this article, I'm not a single parent on this payment, but I can certainly see the problems this policy could cause, not to mention the stress involved.

      What really gets me angry is the policy of giving out middle and upper class welfare, to people who do not need it, seems to be the policy of both major parties in Australia, and then we have both major parties in Australia with the same policy of hurting those that are in need, by taking from them to fund the middle and upper class welfare. It disgusts me, and neither will get my vote.

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  5. Jim Morris

    logged in via Facebook

    'Sexism' has been the word of the week yet almost always the term 'single-mothers' has been used despite the fact that almost 20% of single parents are fathers.
    Single parents are the most economically disadvantaged group yet they have the difficult and vital role of raising children on their own.
    If the government needs to save $278 million over four years why don't they decrease the obscenely high wages they pay themselves? Quentin Bryce gets $394,000 per annum plus a free mansion and what does she do for it? Even Peter Slipper is picking up approximately $1000 per day and "he is a totally unfit person". Greedy unscrupulous politicians; all of them.

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    1. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Jim Morris

      Jim do you have any links that can show that 20% of single parents are fathers? I ask because I tried to find some statistics on this, because it doesn't gel with what I see in my town.

      I absolutely agree that single parents are economically disadvantaged, but I would suggest that any single person, particularly an older single person, trying to survive on Austudy or Newstart, is actually far worse off than any single parent. They also tend to have far less services and support.

      I also agree…

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  6. Bonnie Adomaitis

    logged in via Facebook

    I have been crying all morning, since receiving confirmation that my parenting payment WILL be reduced by $60 per week or more in the school holidays. How am I going to live? and support my child? I am having anxiety attacks and depression at the thought of being even worse off.I work part time as much as possible but recently lost one of these jobs..thus already reducing my income by $50-100 per week. One week ,with Family Tax Benefit I receive aprox $370..rent $270, electricity..35pw, and simply…

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    1. Veronica Sheen

      Research Associate, School of Social Sciences at Monash University

      In reply to Bonnie Adomaitis

      I am very touched by your story Bonnie. It is disgraceful that anyone should have to live like this in Australia in the present day. It is a massive failure of government policies. VS

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    2. Sue Morrison

      Environmental management student, UNE

      In reply to Bonnie Adomaitis

      Bonnie, my heart goes out to you and the many women in similar situations - and thank you Veronica for pointing out the "massive failure of government policies" which Bonnie's story highlights and which is now hitting vulnerable (mostly) women so hard. As a single parent affected by this harsh, irrational policy I too have broken down in tears a number of times in recent weeks - firstly when I had to borrow money from my working 17yo daughter, secondly when I found the butcher had nothing I could…

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  7. Rebecca Averillo

    logged in via email @live.com

    Welfare agencies are going to be hit hard to support the heartless cut in income support to single parents with the change from Single Parenting Payment to Newstart Allowance. Once again, the community organisations are left to pick up the pieces of slap-happy decision making by an already unstable government.

    What about the children? It’s not just the single parents themselves who are affected by this decision, it’s the children who will suffer in the long term. Yes the government’s plans are…

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    1. Sue Morrison

      Environmental management student, UNE

      In reply to Rebecca Averillo

      Hear, hear Rebecca! There are better ways to address issues such as "welfare dependency" than forcing vulnerable people into even harsher circumstances.

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  8. John Warren

    Social Work Student

    It has been interesting to see that very little has been written on this topic within recent social commentary about the 2012 federal budget. Even in this article, it had a very short mentioned.

    Currently, once a single parent has earned more than $62 dollars in a fortnight on Newstart Allowance, the Australian Government will take 40c in the dollar out of their payment and when they have earned more than $1394.50 no payment is given. Consequently, a single parent working two days a week to fulfill…

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  9. rachael watkins

    Nurse

    There are many points in these comments that i agree with. Where are these other parents that arent contributing? If they arnt caring for their children then surely it must be easier for them to obtain work. If they arnt working then why arnt they helping in the care of their children so the other parent can find work.How is the government putting more pressure on the absent parent? I also agree that single parents should be working if possible, for many reasons like, extra money, increased self…

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