Today the Labor Govt committed to ending special arrangements for grandfathered Parenting Payment recipients and putting them on Newstart, bringing them into line with the rest of Australia’s single parents, who were forced onto the dole back in 2006. It was Howard policy that passed with comparatively little fanfare – probably because it happened pre-Twitter and who can even remember life pre-Twitter?
It was a low blow from Howard, using some of Australia’s most vulnerable families to make a point (WIMMINS SHOULD BE MARRIED, OK?) and win votes. I can’t help feeling that in endorsing Howard’s policy, it’s an even lower blow from Gillard. Them being the party of the Fair Go and all.
This sole parent smackdown caught Twitter’s attention today and my feed was full of comments about single mums – most supportive, some bordering on reprehensible. I didn't have the time or patience to argue about it on Twitter, but now my fury is threatening to boil over, so I’d better blurt it here before I make a mess of the curtains.
Before I do, just a little pre-emptive strike on the knobjockeys who try to belittle and shame me into silence whenever I raise this issue. Last time’s favourite was “This from a single mum with Foxtel and a PS3. I don’t have that and I WORK for a living”.
This idea that poor people don’t deserve to enjoy small luxuries is another rant for another day, as is the automatic assumption that anyone who identifies as a single parent must be on welfare.
I do, however, want to clarify up front that I am NOT ON THE PENSION and haven’t been for some time. I don’t even qualify for Rent Assistance. If I want to spend my wages on Foxtel and Playstation games (the console was a gift, if you must know), I will. And quite frankly, if I’d wanted to spend my welfare payments on Foxtel and Playstation games, I would have had every damn right to do so.
So yeah, this issue actually has no direct bearing on my life any more, so by all means go ahead and disagree or argue with me, but don’t bother with the “OMG YOU’RE SO ENTITLED, GET A JOB YOU LAZY SLAPPER” routine. Kthx.
That said, I've been a single parent for most of the past 20 years and spent a lot of time on the pension. Like many single parents, I was usually working and getting a part payment, or being cut off while things were good and falling back on it when money got tight. A few times when the shit really hit the fan, it was my only income for extended periods. I was one of the ‘grandfathered’ recipients they’re talking about at the moment, until a few months of short-term, high-paid work saw my pension cancelled and when the work ended and I tried to go back, I was put onto Newstart instead.
The changes had a pretty big impact on my family, most notably on the choices available to me. Or lack, thereof. In the grand scheme of things, I didn't get that much money out of the pension. I've probably paid as much in tax and if not, I certainly will have covered my share by the time they cart me off in a box. The reduction in payments will really hurt single parents, but this isn't just about the money. The pension was a safety net that I had always relied on, empowering me to make the best decisions for my family. Single parents no longer have those options.
There are sooo many things I want to rant about right now, but I’ll try to focus on two comments that repeatedly appeared in my feed today. This will end up wordy enough, without going off on tangents.
“They can still sit at home until their child turns eight...”
I'm going to ignore the ‘parents of young children just sit on their arses and do nothing’ dog whistle and move straight on to the bigger problem with this statement: Not all single parents are single when they give birth.
Ok, so if I give birth to my first child while I'm single, I can go on the pension and have eight years to start planning for my future (actually, it’s six years, because Mutual Obligation kicks in when they start school). I can sign up for some study (if I can afford it), or maybe do a bit of volunteer work, to improve my chances of employment later. I can start or go back to paid work, safe in the knowledge that if I find I can’t juggle a job and small children, I have a safety net to fall back on and my family won’t starve. Or I can just focus on motherhood and enjoy taking my youngster to the park. ALL OF THESE OPTIONS ARE GOOD FOR KIDS.
Hey, you never know, I might even find myself a partner before then and not have to worry about this at all – six years is a long time.
But that’s not how it works for most single parents. For starters, the overwhelming majority of sole parents were married or defacto when their kids were born. Why is that important? Because they become single parents at later stages in their child’s development and under wildly diverse conditions.
Let’s say, for example, a woman with two children aged 12 and eight. She’s been married for fifteen years and a stay-at-home mum for nearly thirteen of them. She has no recent education or employment history. She doesn't qualify for the Parenting Payment. She has to go on the dole and start looking for work and/or studying.
After a fifteen year marriage, she’s going to be experiencing some serious heartache and her children will likely be acting out in ways that can be very difficult to manage. She may be escaping domestic abuse and dealing with stalking or threats of violence. She may be going through a messy divorce, which can also lead to a loss of friends or family support. She may be left struggling with ‘sexually transmitted debt’. She may be moving house, possibly to an entirely new and unfamiliar area. The family vehicle, furniture, etc may have belonged to her ex. If she’s renting, she WILL be battling massive discrimination in housing and likely can’t afford the bond, anyway…
In the past, the sole parent pension provided breathing space for people in these situations, right up until their kids were sixteen. Not any more. If their youngest child is over six, they are expected to gather their shit and become a functioning member of society immediately, with no time to reflect, plan, deal with trauma, or settle their new family unit into a new rhythm.
There are eleventy billion valid reasons why a newly single parent can’t, and shouldn't be expected to, immediately get a job. In these circumstances, even those who HAVE a job at separation might need to quit in order to deal with everything. Some might be able to arrange extended leave and go back later, but how many of us are lucky enough to have that sort of flexibility? And what if your field is not the sort of thing you can go back to as a sole parent, like jobs requiring long periods away from home? Suddenly your work history means nothing and you’re starting all over again like a highschool leaver.
Which brings me to the second comment…
“There’s no reason why someone with school age children can’t get a job”.
Aside from all the reasons listed above, there are a bunch of other reasons why single parents can’t just pop out and get a job, including:
- LACK OF JOBS. Kind of a fundamental problem, amirite? Most people these days are underemployed - it’s tough to find anything more than casual, part time, or short-term work. That might sound ideal for single parents, but it's not always the case, due to…
- THE WAY CENTRELINK PAYMENTS ARE STRUCTURED. You only have to earn a tiny bit of money p/fortnight before your benefits start getting docked. Pretty soon after starting your low-paying part time job, you’re losing your Parenting Payment – which allowed you to be with your children – and working every day away from home for exactly the same amount, minus miscellaneous work expenses and…
- CHILDCARE. It’s expensive. It’s particularly expensive during school holidays when, even with the full single parent rebate, I used to pay out MORE THAN I EARNED for 13 weeks of the year. I had to borrow money or get advances to cover the costs during school holidays, then work off the debts during the school term. I've quit three part time jobs over the years because it simply wasn't financially viable to continue, including one that I dearly loved. The worst part is that my kids weren't even there most school holidays, as they often went away to visit family, but you have to keep them enrolled (and paid for) to secure your place, thanks to the…
- LACK OF AVAILABLE CHILDCARE. People in the city are struggling to get their kids into a childcare centre. For most people in the country, such a thing doesn't even exist. You can’t force single parents into the workforce without providing adequate childcare options. *Note: The newly single mother with the 12 and 8 year old I described above? There is no childcare available for children over 12. One of the reasons I moved back to the country is that my oldest was about to turn 12 and I didn't know what the hell I was going to do with him after school. We were faced with moving to an unfamiliar (poor, high crime) suburb due to rent rises and, while I have no problem with kids coming home from school alone, it’s just not something I felt comfortable with under those circumstances.
And then there’s that other dirty word that nobody ever wants to talk about…
- DISCRIMINATION. I don’t know any single parents who haven’t experienced some form of discrimination in employment. I'm old enough to remember the Good Old Days, where employers could say “Sorry, I’d just prefer someone without kids” straight to my face. These days it’s usually more subtle, like interviewers asking what childcare arrangements you have in place for emergencies - a more polite version of “But when one of your kids get sick, you’ll go running”, which still gets said to me in less politically correct environments (*cough* the country *cough*). Sadly, it’s often true, because…
- SINGLE PARENTHOOD CAN MAKE YOU SOMEWHAT UNRELIABLE. The key word in ‘single parent’ is SINGLE – as in ALL BY YOURSELF. Many single parents are completely alone, with no family and friends close by and/or no other parent in the picture. If my kid got sick, the school would ring me to pick him up and the childcare centre wouldn't take him. If one kid is sick for a week and the second kid comes down with it over the weekend, it could mean two weeks off work. The average employer won’t tolerate that for too long. And every time you are fired or forced to quit, it only makes you look more unreliable in the eyes of future employers and that much harder to get the next job.
I'm not suggesting all these issues are unique to single parents. I'm well aware that many others face similar problems, especially those on Newstart. But many of the easier answers are unavailable once you have children.
You can’t just crash on a mate’s couch or live in a sharehouse with five other young adults. You can’t survive solely on 2-minute noodles and water crackers. You constantly have to buy clothes and shoes, because kids are always growing. School fees, uniforms and supplies can’t be avoided and their requests for additional cash are relentless. Childcare costs are a shocker. You need bigger houses, bigger cars, you use more electricity and water, pay more doctors bills, blah blah etc etc. They’re expensive, needy little critters.
And before anyone pulls the old “If you can’t afford kids, you shouldn't have them”….really? Is your life going exactly as you planned it 5, 10, 15 years ago? Shit happens. Many children of single parents were born into loving, financially secure relationships, which eventually ended up neither loving nor secure. ALL of us are only one accident or illness away from financial ruin - and many are only one affair, or gambling problem, or domestic violence incident away from single parenthood.
Which is why, of course, everyone should pay attention to what the government is doing to single parents. Because one day, it could be any one of you in the firing line.