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

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

 

 

Musings of a Single Mother on Mother’s Day

‘Ohhhh, that must be so HARRRRD…’

These are typically the first words out of someone’s mouth when I tell them that I am (*gasp*) [wait for it] a SINGLE MOTHER [da da daaaaarrrrrrrr].

Faces like this usually accompany the statement:

Mother’s Day has caused me to reflect on excessive, well-meaning sympathy like this. As I reflect, I am competing with Ever After High blaring on the TV in the background, and my five-year-old daughter (who is going through a developmental stage where she verbalises her every thought) trying show me which La La Loopsy doll she wants for her next birthday (which is in 361 days). Is this experience of multi-tasking so different to what other mothers experience? Nope. So what is different? Well, I guess I’m not simultaneously feeling internal angst about a man not intervening to give me a break so I can finally have 30 minutes to myself. But, as I understand it, women in 2017 are still doing the vast majority of unpaid domestic labour and child-rearing work in relationships so this experience is not peculiar to ‘my type’ either.

Perhaps then the difference for single mother’s is that we have to fully accept and live that reality of ‘doing it all’ every day. There is no pretence: it is on us and we have to get on with it. Unlike our partnered up parenting pals, we do not have the luxury of wasting any time or energy on the unfairness of it all. Instead, we have to get on with the full time responsibilities of living a fully authentic and independent life. And here’s the quicker: yes, it’s financially challenging but YOU ACTUALLY DO NOT NEED A MAN TO COMPLETE YOUR LIFE no matter what Jerry Maguire might have taught you in the 90s. Now, I appreciate that this will come as a shock to some of you droopy sad ‘oh dear she’s a single mum’ face-makers. But this is the veil that has been lifted for me, and my kind – and, we are empowered as a result. You won’t find any feigned learned helplessness in our houses.

Single mothers not only parent and do the household labour they also do the ‘man-work’: they ‘take out the trash’, negotiate household contracts, manage the finances, have difficult conversations with the neighbour, fix the bike, deal with the mechanic, move the furniture, inspect houses, light fires, pitch tents, get the torch and stealth around the house in our undies when we hear a noise at night, replace the batteries, assemble the IKEA furniture like a pro, change the light bulbs, plan the holidays, drive the car – and have control of remote control. We have the satisfaction of knowing without a doubt that we can ‘do it all’, no matter what life throws at us.

Life is challenging for everyone, it is just that our ‘single mother’ challenges happen to reveal an uncomfortable truth to the patriarchy: life goes on without men. And it goes on well. Apart from doing all the heavy lifting, which women do anyway, we also have the ability to dictate the terms of our lives. We don’t need to compromise with a man on any decision – think about how much free time that throws up! By way of illustration, I’m half way through a master’s degree in law and I am volunteering in causes I feel passionate about. I’m not wasting any time on anything that I don’t think is important. My Netflix playlist is queued and it has no competition – and I like it that way.

So next time a woman tells you she is a ‘single mother’, instead of giving her an apologetic grimace and perpetuating the victim myth with your unconscious bias, consider giving her a knowing smile and a high five because now you know the truth: She.Got.This*

Note: I realise that I have been incredibly lucky and that not all women starting life again after a relationship have access to the resources I do. This is why I am on the Board for the Council for Single Mothers and their Children (CSMC), an organisation that is actively seeking to support women who have nowhere else to turn for emergency relief. If you have any cash to spare, please consider making a deposit into the CSMC Safety Net campaign. You can help another woman to thrive, just like me: https://www.givenow.com.au/safetynet

*With a little help from grandma.

Sophie Banks, CSMC Board Member

 

Reflections on the Victorian Budget

Council of Single Mothers and their Children CEO - Jenny DavidsonThe budget released on 3 May demonstrates why Victoria is the place to be living in Australia right now. The Andrews Government has put money behind their rhetoric, backing their equity agenda with some truly landmark investments.

The $1.9 billion to fund services for people who have experienced, or are experiencing family violence is a standout that  will fund such initiatives as a dedicated prevention agency, front line services, emergency and long term housing, financial counselling, 17 support and safety hubs across the State and 5 specialist family violence courts. This is a momentous investment and an acknowledgement of the scale of this entrenched issue. While we unreservedly applaud this initiative, we know that many women escaping family violence with their children return home when the costs of housing and re-establishing kids in school, are too great to manage on a Newstart payment or minimum wage. This is the rub of State-Federal relations and we can only hope the Federal budget will commit as profoundly to a safety net with funds for women and children escaping family violence to rebuild their lives.

What other budget initiatives will translate into support for single mother families in Victoria?

  • Funds for building social housing could ease the acute shortage of affordable housing in the long term, and funds for upgrading the energy efficiency of low income households should reduce utility costs (but will it help renters?).
  • $5.7 million for the implementation of Victoria’s Gender Equality Strategy includes $1.1 million for financial literacy programs for vulnerable women to improve their financial security.
  • $90m (over 2 years) for job creation, including for communities experiencing high levels of disadvantage, may result in the permanent part-time jobs that single mothers so desperately need. Only time will tell.
  • $4.3M will support 3-4 year old disadvantaged children engage with kindergarten.
  • Building new schools and school upgrades have been financed.
  • $81.1 million will be invested in more Maternal and Child Health services and targeted parenting support.

All of this is commendable and heartening. However, for a working single mother struggling to meet living and education costs, who has lost the Federal School Kids bonus at the end of 2016 and gets a tiny bit of Newstart to top up her wage, does any of this help her when times are tight? I think we will find that the answer is largely no.

The Federal budget is due out next Tuesday and I do not expect to feel heartened by it. I think there will be some concerning hits to the most disadvantaged in our community, in a continuation of the trend to balance the budget at the expense of those who can least afford it. We will be waiting with bated breath. I do not think crossing our fingers is going to be of any help.

Jenny Davidson
CEO – Council of Single Mothers and their Children

Just don’t tell them you’re a single mum – the advice I ignored

Fiona McUtchen shares her perspective on being a #proudsinglemother this International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day holds special significance for me this year.  2017 being the 10-year anniversary of when I sat a panel interview for my first professional job as an Entry Level Organisational Psychologist with Chandler Macleod. The interview was held just one floor down from where I write this story now.

A few months into starting in the role, my manager told me something that has stayed with me to this day. He told me the reason he was compelled to hire me was not because of my university scores, my experience in a similar role leading up to the interview or because my thesis happened to be on Emotional Intelligence – very much the hot topic of the consulting world at the time. Those achievements were considered on their merits – but there was one other aspect which had the most positive impact – part of my story which I was warned against mentioning by more than a few people if I was really serious about getting the job.

That was the part about me being a single 20s-something mum who worked part time at a café and got through six years of university with a primary school aged daughter. In a strange twist at the time, it was the single professional white collar male with no kids who was my biggest advocate, who immediately perceived this life experience as an asset – something that would enhance my performance and value to the business, not detract from it.

I feel like a decade later, we have come some way. Maybe those that so ardently bid me to self-censor would be slightly more open-minded or even positive now? There has been a shift – perhaps not en masse – but definitely a swing towards people being less hesitant in sharing their stories about being an active and invested mum who also happens to be searching for her next dream role or career opportunity. I’m glad I didn’t shy away from it all those years ago, as tempted as I might have been to avoid ‘advertising’ that I was a mum – especially a single one.

But I also appreciate that not everyone would have looked at things the way my manager did. Many of the women I have worked with and coached in recent years sadly have the opposite story to tell – experiences of both the subtle and not so subtle discrimination which we know continues to be widespread in Australia and other ‘developed’ countries (Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review – Report, Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014).

The attributes I developed as a single parent also made me a highly-valued employee.

I don’t know if he’s aware of it today, but that manager had an enormous impact on my life. Not only by giving me the opportunity to develop professionally at Chandler Macleod, but also on my continued confidence in being able to bring my whole self to work each day. And he was right – the attributes I developed as a single parent also made me a highly-valued employee. The team I managed out of hours may have only been a team of two – myself and my eight-year-old daughter at the time, but the skills and virtues I developed at home were invaluable to my practice as a Psychologist – particularly those of empathy, resilience, flexibility, creativity, and time management.

That day in 2007 set the tone for things to come. Chandler Macleod has been through enormous change in the last ten years and we have had some dramatic ups and downs like every business, but at every step the business has supported me as a working professional parent.  In the last three years I have had three more beautiful daughters– and whilst it is fair to say that situation was met by some with looks of shock and astonishment (myself included for number four!), it hasn’t slowed down my career. In fact, between baby number two and three, I was offered a promotion to Principal Psychologist, and after my final baby number four last July, I was offered the national role of Project Manager for our internal Culture and Values transformation across Australia, New Zealand and Asia.

This was a project I was incredibly passionate about and one that I had asked to be involved in, thinking that may see me running some workshops or doing backend design work. The response from the EGM of HR was to ask if I was interested in being Project Manager -and I could perform this role according to my schedule and the children’s’ needs as long as this worked for the project as well. Finally after years of helping other companies design and develop their ideal culture, I was able to be part of driving that change in my own organisation – I imagined it was similar to what an architect must feel when they finally get to design and live in their own house.

I don’t make these points to be boastful – either for myself or Chandler Macleod – but to share my experience as a positive example of how organisations can embrace working mothers and be bold in the career opportunities they offer. I genuinely feel lucky that I have had a decade of support and encouragement, without bias and without ever being made to feel less capable or committed because of the equal investment and energy I put into my family.

But when I think about my daughters and the opportunities they will be given when they enter the world of work, which is not far away for daughter #1 who has just finished high school,  I hope that feeling of being lucky is replaced by a feeling of legitimacy. I hope by then that will be the norm not the exception. IWD is a perfect time to start sharing the stories and examples of how we can make this happen so let’s have the conversation and #beboldforchange #iwd2017


YOU can help provide a safety net for single mothers and their children in their time of most acute need.

CSMC in the Year of the Rooster

Planning for 2017

CSMC staff and Board have invested time in looking at key areas where we might be able to make a difference. We are a small organisation, with a limited staff and budget; despite this, we support single mothers in Victoria and across Australia including staffing our support line 9.30am-3.30pm Monday to Friday.

We have 2,500 members and this means a lot of stories and diverse single mother family situations. The lived experience of single mothers is particularly valuable at a time where the Federal government is running attacks on everyone on welfare payments and when we and many other community organisations are fighting back.

We were lucky to have Cath Smith, an experienced facilitator and strategist work with us to plan the outlines of our future focus. We will be putting a detailed plan to members soon, but the areas for focus are:

  • Our children’s well-being and education
  • Income security
  • Safe and affordable housing
  • Flexible work options
  • Legal protection
  • Single mothers’ mental health, well-being and connections

We want to profile the success stories of single mother families, not just tell how hard it is. The often wildly incorrect media representation of single mothers does nothing for our reputation and earns us little respect. While it is true that 40% of the children who live in poverty in Australia are in single parent families, it is also true that single mothers:

  • find work where they can
  • are incredibly imaginative about starting up businesses they can run from home
  • parent successfully with few resources; many of our older members have raised kids who have graduated from TAFE, university and apprenticeships and are now successfully contributing to Australian society
  • Come from every background including Indigenous, long established and recent migrant communities and among us have many skills and capabilities
  • Raise children who feel loved and wanted despite the hardships the family faces.

So in 2017, the Year of the Rooster, CSMC is planning to broadcast the voices of single mother families and to work with other organisations to increase the impact of our actions and our reach. We will be asking members to engage more with us through stories and actions for change. Get ready world – we are coming.

Christmas connections

Feeling the pressure?

Parents often go into overdrive at Christmas, worrying about how maimg_8838ny presents to buy and how much they should spend. They plan how to celebrate with food, gifts, decorations and how to mesh siblings, multiple sets of parents, all the kids and pets.

In single parent families, the vibe is similar but more intense with more at stake. Saving to buy presents for kids, particularly for families on Newstart, is a kind of torture. Our kids get so used to the ‘no, we can’t afford it this week’, that their expectations are low, but still they hope that Santa won’t be broke and they won’t miss out. No eight-year-old is suddenly so grown up they don’t want a bike or a scooter or something fun just because the government has moved their mum to Newstart! So excruciating questions for their mother become what, how many and how much, as she watches their hopes rise. She tries to juggle keeping enough cash for some special food and treats on Christmas day, with leaving enough to manage the holidays and cope with the back to school costs. For single mothers who are working or have supportive families, things can be tight but not impossible. For single mothers recently out of violent relationships, dependent on government incomes and in some cases alienated from friends and families, Christmas can loom as a lonely and soul destroying time. How special then are all the ways these mothers find to cope and to coax the laughter, joy and mystery from the abyss.

Last weekend in Nubeena in Tasmania, I talked with a young single mum at the community fair held at the primary school. She and her children arrived early in the morning, travelling from another small town because here they could race around with other children, ride the bucking bull for free, jump in the jumping castle for hours, have their faces painted, see Father Christmas and have a lucky dip for free. There was no food on sale, so the kids didn’t feel odd when their mum called them for a picnic of vegemite sandwiches, carrot sticks, apples and cordial. They had the lollies from the lucky dip for a treat to munch on while they played and their mum got to listen to some great music, chat with a friend, browse the stalls and buy herself and each of the kids a book for twenty cents each. She talked about how wonderful it was to see all her kids happy and relaxed and completely included in an event without the barriers of payment.

This is why for the past few years, CSMC has held a Christmas party event, eveimg_8773n though it is a lot of work that benefits too few of our members. For the kids and mums who come there is face painting, Mrs Claus, smoothie bikes that use their pedal power to mix up drinks, afternoon tea, a magician, a small show-bag of gifts, and a few hours of being special and connected with other families – other mums, other kids.

Many local Councils still have Christmas carols and other free events that are good opportunities for a family celebration. Around Australia, single mother families are preparing for Christmas and making decisions to have fun whatever happens. Some of the things we’ve heard about are:

  • Plans to invite neighbours to put food together for a party
  • Preparations to make pancakes for breakfast, and pack a picnic for lunch in a park with a great playground. Mums and kids tell us the food can be simple, but having it in the park makes it special.
  • Making Christmas cards and biscuits to take to elderly neighbours who don’t have family
  • Making decorations and op shopping for colourful bits to decorate the house
  • Having Dad stay over on the couch to be there for Christmas morning
  • Borrowing lots of Christmas story books and DVDs from the library to read and watch on the day.

Whatever your day and your thoughts about the day, we hope you and your children enjoy each others company, laugh a lot, and feel special.

The staff at CSMC wish you all the best for Christmas, the school holidays and for 2017.

Andi Sebastian

Communication & Policy

The stubborn poverty facing single mother families

povrepfrontpageThe recently released ACOSS Poverty in Australia 2016 report tells us what we already know: lone parents, 84% of whom are single mothers, have the highest prevalence of poverty of all family types, and have done for long time.

In fact, the report tells us that one third of lone parent families (34%) are living below the poverty line of 50% of the medium income. This means that 41% of children in lone parent families are in poverty (compared with 12.5% of children in couple households), an increase over the past 10 years (or more).

“In single-parent families, four children in ten now live in poverty. After 25 years of uninterrupted economic growth, we can do better than this!” states David Morawetz in the report.

 

This leads to the truly pertinent questions: Why is this situation so bad, and what can we do to reduce the structural disadvantage that single mothers face?

The ACOSS Report begins to address the question of why. They show that lone parents experience more poverty due to their lower levels of employment, triggered by the undiluted responsibilities they shoulder which in turn restrict employment choices and options. The latest HILDA report reinforces that this inability to secure suitable, reliable work results in high levels of poverty and welfare reliance.

We know this at CSMC: Single mothers want to work, and do work however, there are not enough family friendly jobs which sole parents desperately want and need. We want school hour jobs, job share positions, jobs which can help us still be parents to our children, and accessible and affordable childcare.

The casualisation of the workforce has taken a terrible toll on women who use our services, with steadily increasing underemployment and increasingly unreliable incomes. Unaffordable housing is another trigger of poverty, with a significant number of our service users paying 55% or more of their limited income on housing. This leaves little for groceries, utilities and school expenses, and nothing for recreational activities or holidays, which just don’t happen in low income single mother families.

The situation is dire for these families and the children growing up in them. In amongst our prosperous society, we have a cluster of disadvantage that has proven stubborn. And no, Prime Minister, making the welfare system more punitive will not give Newstart recipients great incentives to get jobs that simply are not out there. Without adequate support, be it extended family, childcare and after school care, flexible employers or part-time school hour jobs, single mothers trying to support their family on the woefully inadequate Newstart payments will not see an uptake in employment by raising expectations and tightening regulations. Increasing financial penalties will only further embed these families in poverty.

 

John Falzon, CEO of St Vincent de Paul, made the same argument recently in The Guardian: “By focusing on the supposed failings of the individual, we are missing the bleeding obvious: that there are not enough jobs (and more specifically, not enough hours!) for those who can work as well as a seriously inadequate level of income support for those who cannot.”

So, what can we do?

This is the question that the Council of Single Mothers and their Children will be examining over the next months as we undertake strategic planning to set our direction for the next few years. With our specialist knowledge, fever for change and limited resources, what can WE do to better support single mothers and assist them to provide the best possible future for their children, as we know they want to.

If you would care to feed into this process, I’d love to hear from you. Email me with any ideas or suggestions – ceo@csmc.org.au

Jenny Davidson
Endnotes

Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) Poverty in Australia 2016, October 2016 

The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey: Selected Finding from Waves 1 to 12, July 2016

ABC News, Janda, Michael Unemployment rate only telling half the labour market story 17 Oct 2016

ABC News, Norman, Jane Expectation on welfare recipients ‘miserably low’ as Government seeks to impose tighter regulations, 24 October 2016

The Guardian, Falzon, John Opinion: Australia does not have a welfare problem. We have a poverty problem, 20 September 2016

‘Basics’ are the new luxury

austhouseofrepsExcerpt from the National Council of Single Mother’s Submission to The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Budget Repair) Bill September 2016

Successive Governments have made decisions that have resulted in reducing the main income of sole parent families – the same families who are in the most need and would have an immediate benefit with a hand up rather than increased harm.

Irrespective of which ‘lens’ is applied to measure hardship such as the ACOSS Poverty Report or The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey (Hilda) it is sole parent families, 88% are headed up by a mother, who are the struggling just to survive.

New research from Good Shepherd Microfinance found that single mothers are over-represented among ‘payday lending’ borrowers. The research found that while 15% of women are single mothers, they now represent 47% of women using payday loans and the use of payday loans was to provide the basics.

“Single mums, whose carer duties often limit their earning potential, are also over represented in repeat borrowers and those with concurrent loans, and are far more likely to borrow for essential items like food, children’s needs and school trips. These women are having to borrow at huge interest just to provide for their children – and they’re being charged a premium for it”.[i]

The current environment requires a sole parent to compete with job seekers and new data by the ABS stated that there were 345,000 people registered with Centrelink. This does not include underemployment and the under-employed person indicated that they are seeking an extra 15 hours per week.[ii]

These numbers are imposing enough but are magnified as single mothers do not start from an equal footing. It is more likely than not that these job seekers will be living in housing stress and only one small step away of feeling the consequences of an insecure tenancy and/or homelessness for their family.

A sole parent family, when undertaking their mutual obligation activities, may do so from a nearby internet café that offers free WI-FI because their own service has been reduced or ceased. These job seekers must be careful not to outstay their welcome as they sip on water and most likely be hungry as food security is also a reality in poor families. It is also likely that they will have ignored their health as health care is now beyond their affordability and it’s no longer universal.[iii]

As a country we then tell the parent who is meeting the demands of sole parenting; providing the care, the love and the nurturing and every other parental aspect, that once they find employment that they will be able to retain $62 of their income per week before their $285.95 it is reduced (Newstart principle carer).

This will occur even if the employment is low paid, part time and/or insecure. We further tell this family that this is the best that they can expect as the already inadequate income free threshold will freeze for the next three-years.

As a country we ignore the plight of child poverty and the impact that it has on the child as they will struggle to reach their full potential and talents. Child Poverty remains concentrated in sole parent families and the Hilda Study again had it as unacceptable and stubbornly persistence at or above 20%.

The child poverty rate is consistently below the community-wide poverty rate, averaging approximately 10% over the 2001 to 2014 period. However, this largely reflects the very low poverty rates for children in couple families. The probability of being in poverty is very high for children in lone-parent families, in most years hovering between 20% and 25%”[iv]

Our policy response to child support is stagnant and it appears that we accept $2.1 BILLION owed in unpaid or underpaid Child Support as we fail to remedy the alarm that children are missing out. The harm grows when policy remains ‘gendered blind’ and we accept the inherent discrepancies in the Superannuation system, a stubborn wage gap and we don’t account for the contribution and cost of providing unpaid care, all of which disadvantages single mothers. The situation is not ‘wicked’ we are not without solutions.

The system is broken but we are not without practical options. NCSMC recommends that the Federal Government:

  1. Immediately restore the Parenting Payment Single, a modest payment that was structured to support sole parent families. It provides a foundation that enables a mother to participate in part-time work and/or study whilst meeting the demands of sole parenting. The Parenting Payment was not ‘poverty proof’ but it is a significant improvement than forcing families onto Newstart when the youngest child turns eight years.
  2. Develop a system where paid work becomes the financial gain for a family and that income free area for Newstart is elevated to that of the Parenting Payment Single. This is a sensible response noting that the Parenting Payment Single was structured for single parents to enter and engage in the labour market and meet the demands of sole parenting.
  3. Institute an income support system that is not a ‘political game’ but rather the product of a reputable and independent body. A body that will make an assessment which is based in solid research and that will quarantine Australians against poverty and build economic resilience.
  4. Guarantee child support, which would immediately cease the practice of post-separation financial abuse and control. The current situation forces mothers to hope that the nominated amount is collected and then paid on time. It’s flawed budgeting and one that families should not have to endure.

We are arguing that there is work to be done; that there are opportunities and the benefits would be immediately felt by the families who are in need. This action should be first in the ‘Order of Business’ and take precedence over Legislation that increases hardship.

[i] Women’ s Agenda Women vulnerable to high cost credit

[ii] news.com.au Hopeless cases the bitter taste of Australia’s employment problem

[iii] Sydney Morning Herald Medical costs forcing Australians to skip healthcare

[iv] The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics (HILDA) in Australia Survey: Selected Findings from Waves 1 to 14 (page 31)

 

Cuts to the Energy Supplement loom

Parliament will return on 12 September to debate the omnibus Bill with $6.1billion in spending cuts, most of which are backed by both the government and Labor.

This includes removing the Energy Supplement for new recipients of Newstart and other benefits. People already receiving the Energy Supplement will continue to receive it – for now!

The Energy Supplement of $4.20 per week for singles (including single mothers), is the only real increase in the Newstart allowance in 22 years, and even with it recipients of Newstart are barely making ends meet. In fact, 55% are living below the poverty line at the current rate of $570.80 a fortnight for single parents, which is a decrease in real terms of $10 per fortnight since June 1998.

Without this small amount, regardless of the reason it was provided to families in the first place (to offset the impact of the carbon price that never went ahead), Newstart recipients, in particular single mothers trying to raise children, will struggle even more to survive.
CSMC fervently encourages Labor to insist the government find more equitable means to reduce the deficit and not to support this cut to Australian’s poorest families.

Take action!

Email the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten and ask him to support single mother families and tell him how it will effect you, or email your federal politician and ask them to support single mothers.

Micro-Aggressions and Single Mothers

Micro-aggressions – the many little devaluing and disrespectful verbal interactions and injustices that are almost too small to identify, but accumulate to make the recipient feel judged, undermined and demoralised. Sound familiar? I think for many single mothers, it will.

Last week I was delighted to attend the Women’s Policy Action Tank which aimed to put women in the centre of policy development. It was an amazing array of cross-sector panels, new research and helpful insights, much of which is very relevant to CSMC’s work with single mothers. Still fresh in my CEO role, I was very proud to be representing CSMC and heartened by the response I received from supporters of CSCM in the community sector.

Dr Kristin Natalier’s research into micro-aggressions really struck a chord with me. Kristin’s work has centred on single mothers on concession cards, who are the primary users of our support services.

There are three types of micro-aggressions:

  • Micro-assaults – often deliberately discriminatory or unhelpful comments, for example representing single mothers are bad mothers;
  • Micro-invalidations – negating the lived realities of a group, such as implying the single mothers run out of money because they waste it, rather than the reality that there just isn’t enough;
  • Micro-insults – demeaning and undermining interactions that are obviously rude or insulting.

These many small negative interactions serve to remind low income single mothers, or other marginalised groups, that money and power are bound together in ways that disadvantage them, and cumulatively represent the underlying systematic power inequalities. Ultimately, women’s sense of self and confidence becomes eroded, and individually and collectively, single mothers are devalued.

What can you do, upon receiving such behaviour? You can counter them directly in conversation, if possible, with a statement like “That’s not my experience, and it’s not the experience of many other single mothers”, or by using phrases or asking questions such as:

  • I’ve experienced the opposite…
  • I’m not sure that reflects my experiences…
  • I would disagree with that…
  • Who have you talked to about that?
  • Do you think there are other opinions about that?*

It’s not always going to be comfortable to response verbally in the moment, however these injustices do need to be taken seriously.

In many cases they may be linked to the culture of the agencies in which staff are dishing them out, and there are recourses to complain about the way you are treated by staff. For instance, you can make a complaint about Centrelink by calling 1800 132 468 or online.

Finally, including single mothers in development of policy that impacts them directly will help to build policies that reflects their lived reality.

For now, there is this – you are not imagining it! You are not alone!

If you would like to share experiences you’ve had of micro-aggressions, you can post on our Facebook page.

For support, referral, advocacy and information, please call our Support Line on 03 9645 0622 between 9.30am and 3pm Monday to Friday. If you’re outside Melbourne, you can call 1300 552 511 for the cost of a local call.

At CSMC, all our staff are, or have been, single mothers and we understand the challenges and joys of parenting solo and the realities of grappling with government agencies, family law, limited finances and other difficulties.

Jenny Davidson
CEO

Read more about Kristin’s work on micro-aggressions here. 
*This language has been adapted from a blog on sexist micro-aggressions.