It is universally agreed Newstart is inadequate, especially for the long-term support of individuals or families. The government says their solution is for recipients to get a job, but that is not easy or even possible for many Newstart recipients. Of more than 600,000 people on the payment, about half are not even required to look for work because they can’t.
They may be in training, sick, in deep distress, volunteering, needing treatment or just too old, so are exempted but still on the same low payment. The government focuses public attention on the other 300,000 plus who are registered as job seekers, ignoring the other half on the inadequate payment, often for the long-term.
Many official job seekers will have serious difficulties finding a job, particularly sole parents with family constraints on time and location. They compete with the rest of the 600,000 unemployed people that the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates are active job seekers, as well as those in a job but wanting to move, those wanting more hours and those who would take a job if offered one but are not counted as looking.
So there may be a million job seekers, chasing around the current 160,000 registered job vacancies, and falling. Even if there are some unregistered jobs, there may be a ratio of six seekers for each job.
There are around 100,000 sole parents officially looking for the few flexible jobs that fit school type hours competing with others fitting parenting around paid work who have partners!
Sole parents have to deal with employer prejudices against sole parents, lack of child care and how to manage sick kids. Maybe 10% of them will find secure jobs, more may find some casual work, but their chances of finding the right jobs are not high.
There is also no evidence that cutting their income increases their employment rates, in fact it may decrease them - looking for work costs money. Their numbers may increase if some of the holders of part-time jobs cut hours or jobs because their lower income doesn’t cover the costs of working.
Therefore it is hard to justify moving sole parents onto Newstart for their own good. The lack of data suggests that there are few benefits and policy that devalues parenting roles may backfire in other ways.
Cutting sole parent payments devalues social relationships and redefines parents as individual economic units. The primary carer is still usually the mother, so the cuts are sexist.
The policy also fails to recognise kids, even aged eight and above, need time, skill and social inputs as against just covering costs. These gendered prejudices against single mothers use a vulnerable group to make money savings.
The policy ignores serious barriers faced by conscientious parents looking for at least 15 hours of paid work that fit with school hours, the diverse needs of children, the skills and experience of parents and avoids prejudiced employers.
It’s really hard juggling kids and work if you are the only adult there. They get sick, they need extra attention sometimes, they may have minor disabilities or problems at school. They need care in holidays and often before and after school, as jobs fitting into school hours are rare.
Children need predictability, as do mothers, but often casual workers lack the control over their hours. There are serious structural difficulties of finding jobs that fit family needs, the time demands of children and the difficulties of good solo primary parenting.
I can remember my time as a sole parent in the 1970s on the what was then labelled the Widows Pension, when I returned to university with a primary school aged child. I’d already had some years of juggling day care and jobs and knew how to work the system. Day care was virtually nonexistent but I wheedled a place in a SDN centre, so later expiated my guilt at queue jumping by taking on child care and welfare payments as my policy area in the newly formed Women’s Electoral Lobby.
I am therefore both emotionally and professionally aware of the problems women face in combining paid work and child rearing. As a feminist, I am both aware of the benefits that come from the right to paid work, but not coercion into crappy insecure jobs.
in the last ten years, I have undertaken two research projects with Kathleen Swinbourne and Terry Priest. The first was a qualitative research project that found sole parents want a job, but one that fitted children’s needs as good parenting was their priority, as it should be.
The next research project looked at the new welfare to work policy in 2005. It showed parents face serious difficulties finding suitable jobs. Some have come out of difficult and violent relationships, some have children with a disability but not serious enough for a carer payment; some have limited language skills, chronic ill-health and other problems. All are treated as though it is their fault they can’t find work.
The Howard government reduced sole parent payments for new applicants once their child turned eight, and required they look for jobs once their child turned six. There are around 40,000 sole parents who have been transferred to Newstart but no evidence that this has improved their employment, compared to those still on parenting payment. They have already had two years of job seeking, so reducing their income does not create paid work.
The official claims that children benefit from an employed parent works for those who find good jobs. However, what if futile job seeking creates more stress and poverty for most of these families?
Many of those now transferred to Newstart are also older as they have been on the payments since before 2006! All this makes jobs harder to find, so they should be given an adequate income to live on. An alternate set of support carrots and changed employer attitudes would offer better outcomes.