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Harsh realities of a policy that moves more into poverty

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.

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