descriptionStereotyping single mothers is not new – its history, and how to challenge it

On 8 November, The Courier Mail wrote an article about Centrelink “cracking down” on “single mothers” who are allegedly under-reporting their earnings.[i] The usual stereotypes were deployed without alternative perspectives to balance the story. It began “Single mothers have been crying poor, but are raking in tens of thousands of dollars in welfare”.

The stereotype of the ‘welfare queen’ (the single mother living large on taxpayer funds who is dishonest, even fraudulent) is not new.  This, and ones of single mothers as lazy, self-entitled, and irresponsible, abound in media and political discourse.[ii] These stereotypes are often implied, rather than explicit, but their message carries to readers who have no personal experience of single mothers to counter this view.

Research and our own lived experiences paint a very different picture of single mothers’ lives. Most are in some form of paid employment in addition to doing the hard work of parenting.[iii] Single mothers’ poverty, and the desperation of the minority of single mothers who may under-report income, is not because of some collective character flaw – it’s due to our ongoing economic marginalisation, the devaluing of our work as mothers, and the privileging of men within the child support system. Childcare shortages, inflexible employment, low and non-payment of child support,[iv] and the casualisation of jobs are just some of the difficulties mothers face in maintaining financial security and stability. With these facts in the forefront, the idea of ‘welfare fraud’ appears in a new light – as an act of survival for some who struggle within an unjust system.

The denigration of the single mother has a long history, but has not always focused on her so-called economic irresponsibility. In Australia, descriptions of single mothers as morally irresponsible goes back more than a hundred years with single mothers referred to as harlots, strumpets, fallen women, and eventually, unmarried mothers.[v] Between the 1950s and 1970s, society’s disdain for unmarried mothers culminated in the forced removal of tens of thousands of babies for adoption.[vi] Now that it is considered less acceptable to criticise personal moral choices, it is single mothers’ welfare use rather than their marital status that is the object of social comment and control. This shift occurred as a result of political debate about ‘welfare dependency’, and subsequent welfare policy changes, from the 1980s.[vii] Rhetoric about welfare intensified under the Howard government and focused on single mothers to garner support for program changes under Welfare to Work.[viii]

Welfare cuts are part of a broader set of policy changes, including privatisation of  public assets, tax cuts for the rich and corporations, and deregulation of the market, which are in turn part of a political project that is re-making government and our world. These moves – which are not isolated to Australia – are resulting in widening wealth inequality. According to the Credit Suisse World Wealth Report, released last year, five men now own nearly as much wealth as half of the world’s population.[ix] Widening wealth inequality acts as a double-whammy for women, especially single mothers, who already face an array of challenges when it comes to financial security. Indeed, welfare cuts have been linked to an increase in financial strain experienced by single mother households.[x]

It helps to know history and the current socio-political climate. Not only can we draw strength from knowledge in the face of hurtful stereotypes; we can, both as single mothers and as concerned citizens, become better armed in challenging stereotypes that harm us and our children. The reality is that misinformation influences people’s views and this in turn can have a profound impact on policy that affects our lives.

Although many of us are time-poor, there are  things we can do to challenge negative stereotypes and help turn the tide on harmful policy.

  • As a start, write to Courier Mail and tell them that their article is unbalanced and negatively portrays single mothers. You can do this if you are a single mother or if you are a friend, family member, a former partner who is supportive, or someone who cares about fair and just reporting. You can contact Courier Mail’s Chief of Staff Rosemary Odgers at cos@thecouriermail.com.au to make a formal complaint.
  • If you haven’t already, follow social media pages like ACOSS, Australian Welfare News, United Sole Parents of Australia, Destroy the Joint, and Sally McManus to keep informed on relevant policy and women’s issues, and actions that can be taken to support the rights of single mothers as women, mothers and workers.

The tide may be turning in policy areas that have created so much inequality for so many people, including  single mothers, for far too long. People are beginning to wake up to arguments such as ‘tax cuts for the rich create jobs’ and ‘welfare acts as a disincentive to work’ as the research paints a very different picture. However, some of the worst may be yet to come (e.g. welfare drug testing, the Basics Card, etc.).

If you are a single mother, hold tight and find solace and strength in joining those fighting for single mothers and others marginalised by government language and policy. If you are not a single mum but care about us having a fair deal, speak up when you see misrepresentation and tell the world about those you know who are great mothers, work hard, are honest, and doing their best to build better lives for themselves and their children.

Our guest blogger, Emily Wolfinger, is a single mum and PhD candidate researching and writing on issues impacting single mother’s economic security.  You can follow her on Twitter @Ewolfi10.

[i]  http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/centrelink-cracks-down-on-single-parents-underreporting-pay-to-recoup-110-million/news-story/10817c4a89d535d00a740a8187a01118

[ii] http://www.hca.westernsydney.edu.au/gmjau/?p=1543

[iii]http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Products/6224.0.55.001~Jun%202012~Chapter~one%20Parent%20Families

[iv] https://theconversation.com/what-would-another-review-of-child-support-achieve-we-know-the-problems-and-how-to-fix-them-66128

[v] Swain, S. (1995). Single mothers and their children: Disposal, punishment and survival in Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

[vi]https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/Completed_inquiries/2010-13/commcontribformerforcedadoption/report/index

[vii] http://www.basicincome.qut.edu.au/documents/dependrhetrcjp_06.pdf

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] http://publications.credit-suisse.com/tasks/render/file/index.cfm?fileid=AD6F2B43-B17B-345E-E20A1A254A3E24A5

[x] http://www.acoss.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Poverty-in-Australia-2016.pdf