Budget 2017 and why ‘A fair chance for every child’ still matters so much

CSMCFederal Politics

Budget 2017 and why ‘A fair chance for every child’ still matters so muchThe 2017 Federal Budget is a big improvement on the low-tide mark of Liberal’s awful 2014 budget; however, some measures will have a marked impact upon single mother families who are receiving welfare support. Others will affect all those with low and insecure incomes. Interestingly, few articles or discussions have considered the impact of these measures on children. Therefore, we are adding our voice to the mix to consider what this budget might mean for both single mothers and their children.

Single mothers are parents. Obvious as that sounds, many don’t always see it this way. Certainly, governments of both persuasions make decisions that completely ignore the impact of these on the well-being of our children. A clear example was the decision to move single mothers to Newstart when their youngest child turns eight. You cannot bully people into jobs that don’t exist and the result of that policy has been a massive increase of children living in poverty on a welfare support payment that even KPMG a year ago described as ‘too low to actually enable the unemployed to actively search for work’.[1] This is a significant contributor to 40% of children in single mother families living in poverty.[2]

Since we began our organisation nearly fifty years ago, single mothers have been choosing, despite the odds, to raise their children alone rather than give their babies up for adoption or remain in violent or unhappy relationships. Evidence shows that despite poverty, single parents can raise resilient children who do well on every indicator. Our older membership demonstrates this as our children graduate from school, university, and TAFE and go on to achieve so much. Sadly, we have seen an erosion of previous support systems in an increasingly punitive environment since 2006 and the job of a single mother raising her children solo becoming harder every year.

The job of a single mother raising her children solo is becoming harder every year.

Therefore, in 2017, we will call for evaluations of every measure in the budget affecting single parents in the light of their impact upon single mothers’ and our children’s health and well-being.

Some positives, assuming the parliament agrees and passes the relevant legislation:

  • ‘Zombie’ measures from the 2014 budget that could have harmed many welfare recipients, particularly those on Newstart, are gone.
  • Violent ex-partners will no longer be able to directly cross-examine their former partner in courts.
  • Community legal centres continue to receive funding to provide essential services.

Women’s shelters will achieve secure, long-term funding from 2018/19 under the new Commonwealth/State National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA).

Issues affecting single mothers that concern us:

  1. Parents Next

At face value, this is more money to help single mothers with work and study options. However, in many circumstances, participation is compulsory. Parenting Next is set to be expanded to 51 employment regions across Australia and to 30 locations where ‘a high number of Parenting Payment recipients are Indigenous’.[3]

This approach will be genuinely supportive only if these staff who understand the difficulties single mothers face in getting work that matches school hours and finding employers who are supportive when children are unwell, and are able to help single mothers identify and undertake study and other preparations that will lead to secure employment.

We note the program targets the most vulnerable single mothers and we know that this can mean targeting people least able to defend themselves against unreasonable decisions and expectations. We wonder for instance, where the program focuses on Indigenous single mothers, will staff all undergo cultural safety training? Will local Indigenous women be employed by the program, and how will the program take into account entrenched racism that can stop Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders being employed?

As this program has explicit links with Centrelink and can lead via demerit points to payments being cut, how will Parenting Next processes be handled to ensure single mother families are not left without food and rent?

Parents Next is currently being trialled in ten municipalities across Australia, and is billed as ’helping parents prepare for work.’ We hope there have been evaluations of the trial and that our fears prove unfounded. We’ve heard stories from a few single mothers already in the Parents Next system, who tell of a system with little flexibility (for example when their children are sick), that seems preoccupied with ticking boxes and meeting its own indicators. We have heard from single mothers that:

  • Rather than being supported to identify courses and future work paths, they are required to do things like take their pre-schooler to story time at the library for one hour a week even though they are already attending playgroups and other activities.
  • They have been told their payment will be stopped if they don’t attend a meeting even where they have a doctor’s certificate showing their toddler is unwell and should not leave the house.
  • They have been told there is no funding to support the study they want to do.

We know the majority of single mothers want to work and are often keen to use the early childhood years to study and get ahead. We have our fingers crossed that the Parent Next expansion will enhance their efforts to secure a stable financial future for themselves and their children.

Likelihood of going ahead: high

  1. Demerit-points system

‘Three strikes and you’re out’. Why would any system that purports to help people endorse a process which leaves participants and their children unable to afford housing, food, healthcare, education or clothing? There are many instances where single mothers and others receiving Newstart payments are penalised by mistakes in the system, human error and factors outside their control. Centrelink staff have been placed under unprecedented strain in the past year, and the automated debt-recovery system has demonstrated considerable scope for error.

Demerit points will work on the three strike basis if a ‘reasonable excuse’ is not offered and accepted:

  • Strike one will mean 50% loss of payment
  • Strike two will be 100% loss of payment
  • Strike three – 4 weeks loss of payment

In each of these scenarios, we can see the single mother and her child or children potentially becoming homeless, the children hungry, and school fees becoming insurmountable.

We are concerned that rather than the welfare system preventing people falling into poverty, it seems only to want to support ‘the deserving’. This is a relic of past distinctions made between the widowed (and therefore good) single mothers and the rest, including those escaping violence, who were not so good. A bit like ‘good debt’ and ‘bad debt’.

Likelihood of going ahead: medium

  1. Relationship verification

The budget papers say stronger relationship verification for single parent recipients is required. The new verification process will apply to single parents on Parenting Payment (Single) and Newstart Allowance.

Budget papers state that:

  • Claimants will be required to have one referee fill out a form verifying their relationship status;
  • Penalties will apply to both claimants and referees who provide false information (up to 12 months in prison);
  • This new process will operate from 1 January 2018 to stage reviews of existing recipients of these payments;
  • From 20 September 2018, this new process will apply to new claimants of these payments;
  • This change will result in $93.7 million in savings over five years from 2016.

The latest information is that all current recipients will also be expected to go through this process, which will be costly and onerous.

If the government is so clear about the exact amount they will save over 5 years, this means more than 4,685 single parents might be caught and will presumably be penalised by losing the parenting payment or Newstart. A savings of $93.7 million over 5 years amounts to 0.01% of the total welfare bill over 5 years (including NDIS and Aged Pension), and at what cost to single mothers and what impact upon their children?

A savings of $93.7 million over 5 years amounts to 0.01% of the total welfare bill.

Those of us who lived through the period of the ‘bona-fide domestic relationship’ investigations remember Department of Social Security field agents questioning children of single mothers, their friends, school teachers, and neighbours in order to, effectively, find a man to take on their financial support. During the years this regime operated, there were many abuses of process, appeals to the (then) Social Security Appeals Tribunal, and vindictive ex-partners ‘dobbing’ in the mother of their children just to make her justify her circumstances.

We will be agitating against this step which seeks to further divide single parents (mothers in particular) into good and bad, and which brings third parties into a paternalistic judgement which, if they get wrong for any reason, can have them in prison.

Likelihood of going ahead: low, we hope…

  1. Education

There is some news about basing access to pre-school on the parent’s activity rather than the needs of the child. If for any reason a parent does not meet the activity requirements, the most pre-school the child can access is 15 hours per week, even though evidence suggests that a minimum of 18 hours is required to set each child up well for school. We cannot make sense of this. Why are all our governments so apparently reluctant to opt for the best possible future for the new generation of Australians?

Likelihood of going ahead: medium

We see many single mums struggling with their children’s school costs and there is not much in this Federal Budget to alleviate this, even though schools will receive better funding. We find some schools supportive of low-income families and others where the school administrators behave in ways that shames and disadvantages the child by telling them to make sure their mum pays her bill.

For single mums studying, the Pensioner Education Supplement (PES) and the Education Entry Payment (EdEP) will continue and eligibility for both remains the same, so that is great news. However, from 1st   January 2018, the rates of PES and EdEP will change to align with study loads in four payment tiers. PES will not be paid during semester breaks and holidays.

These changes and others that require earlier repayment of HELP debts will affect both these groups of single mothers. Future students will face higher charges for each degree at the outset.

The long-term future for the whole family is less rosy if the mother’s ability to study is compromised.

Likelihood of going ahead: high

  1. Child support

There are a number of changes coming in relation to the child support system. Broadly, these include:

  • Longer interim periods where care arrangements are disputed
  • Amended taxation assessments to be considered
  • Clearer bases for child support agreements to be set aside
  • Greater equity in the collection of child support debts and overpayments.

The language around these changes is not yet clear so we will be keeping an eye on the meaning of each of these. Certainly, the system is in such disarray we hesitate to believe it can get worse.

Likelihood of going ahead: high

  1. Streamlining payments

In March 2020, the government will introduce a new single “JobSeeker payment”, which will progressively replace seven different payments including the Newstart Allowance, Sickness Allowance, and Partner Allowance. While this is presented as simplifying the system, it is estimated that over 99% of people will have no change to their payment rates. However, the impact upon people new to the payment is unknown and of concern. The government expects there will be around 800,000 people receiving Newstart at the time of the change and between 15,000 and 20,000 receiving all other payments who will be combined into the new payment.

Eligibility for Pensioner Concession Cards and Health Care Cards will remain unchanged under the JobSeeker Payment. Eligibility for the JobSeeker payment is restricted to 22 years (minimum) and Age Pension age (maximum).

Likelihood of going ahead: medium

There are also a number of changes relating to Family Law that have been announced with this budget. We will discuss these separately.

Our conclusion?

Rather than seeing the single mothers like Rosie Batty who are dedicated parents struggling to do the best for their children, this budget seemingly presents single mothers who receive any welfare support as immoral, cheating the tax payer and too lazy to work.

We hope to be wrong and find that the budget initiatives are supportive and strengthening, but the performance of this government to date suggests a punishing path ahead.

Andi Sebastian
Policy & Communications

[1] ABC News: Budget 2016: KPMG urges Federal Government to look beyond next election 28th April 2016

[2] ACOSS Poverty in Australia Report 2016

[3] Budget Measures 2017-18 – Part 2: Expense Measures