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
Safe and affordable housing
Flexible work options
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.
When I started my final placement for my Master of Social Work degree at the Council of Single Mothers and their Children (CSMC), I had little understanding of the rich history single mothers have created in Victoria and Australia-wide, or the unique challenges they face on a daily basis.
In social work, we learn how to work with families and individuals, but despite single mother families being 13% of all Australian families, their perspectives and dilemmas are neither acknowledged nor part of our training. I think this reflects traditional and increasingly inaccurate perceptions of the family unit as always being a mother and father in a heterosexual relationship and their children. Realising my own lack of preparedness encouraged me to learn about the diversity of families and reflect on the impact of incorrect assumptions and beliefs.
Once I had my head around this realisation, I undertook a project to increase the access of single mothers who speak little or no English to the services of CSMC. I discovered the value of the specialist knowledge CSMC has to those in generalist services who assist single mothers and their families. During my interactions, I learnt about the isolation any single mother may face, which can be particularly acute for women who do not speak English. Isolation can range from not having a partner to discuss a challenging behaviour with to feeling uncomfortable about attending parenting groups for fear of being the only single mother and having to explain their circumstances. Whilst mothers and parents may welcome single mothers into parenting groups, public, media and government comments include much negative discourse that stigmatises single parents in general, and single mothers in particular.
Under recent changes to Centrelink policy, single parents will require a third party to verify their single mother status. Jail penalties apply to both a single parent and the third party if this verification is wrong. In the past, government assessments of the status of single parents has fallen more heavily on single mothers than single fathers. Constantly having to justify their circumstances manifests in lowered self-esteem and discrimination in other aspects of these women’s lives. For this and other reasons, I think as social workers we hold a significant responsibility to welcome and support single mothers who access our services.
I recently observed in another service an interaction that made me reflect on my intended practice as a social worker. A single mother was accessing a mandatory service to receive her welfare payments. The service worker was displeased that the woman was ten minutes late for her appointment and, in a room full of people, interrogated the woman as to why she was late. This seemed to me inappropriate (no concern for any private disclosure the woman may need to make), inconsiderate (in the presence of others, and an interrogatory manner rather than polite question), and lacking understanding (no account given for school holidays, transport issues or arrangements for the children). This made me consider the kind of social worker I want to become.
From my time at CSMC, I have gained two insights as I qualify as a social worker and begin my career.
The first is the importance of organisations, particularly specialist ones that represent minority groups, to government, employers and the media. Single mothers, whether working or receiving income support, with one child or many, Indigenous, recently arrived or non-Indigenous, all face a range of social, financial, educational and employment challenges that are somewhat different to those facing partnered mothers. I have witnessed firsthand the incredible work CSMC does to advocate for change on behalf of thousands of members who are directly or indirectly affected by State, Federal and Local Government policies.
The second is that I would never have been able to support single mother families as effectively in the future if I had not learned about some specific issues they face.
While many single mothers require little support, I’ve learned about the negative impacts of welfare policies and failures in the child support system. Some barriers to social inclusion, affordable and appropriate housing and employment opportunities manifest in ways specific to single mothers and their children. I’ve realised the link between single mothers and family violence, as it is often the trigger for the breakdown of the family. Through the CSMC’s education support program, I feel more equipped to facilitate vulnerable families’ access to resources for children’s schooling and more confident in understanding Victoria’s education policies.
When I started at CSMC, I had a basic understanding of the lived experience of single mothers from single mums in my life. I am leaving with a better understanding of the diversity of experiences amongst single mothers. Perhaps what I have enjoyed most about my time at CSMC is speaking with women who despite their very different experiences share an incredible amount of strength, solidarity and resilience in the face of hardship and struggles.
I came to CSMC eager to learn and to apply my social work skills to a non-social work placement. I hope I have represented the profession of social work in a positive light and contributed effectively to CSMC. I have enjoyed the learning opportunities CSMC has given me and feel proud to have completed my studies here, and to be leaving as a qualified social worker.
Masters of Social Work placement, September 2017 – January 2018
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 want people to know what the Indue card is really like”
Anna is a single mother of three children, nine, seven and four. They live in Ceduna where she, along with most other people receiving some form of social security payment, had to switch to the Cashless Debit Card trial. “I’ve been on it since pretty much the beginning,” Anna told us when we spoke to her on the phone.
The Indue card, as Anna refers to it, “makes life as a single mother more difficult than usual. You just lose any control in your life. You can’t even properly manage your budget and go shopping with confidence.”
Anna told us she feels that her life has become more stressful and difficult since the linking of her Parenting Payment to this card.
The Cashless Debit Card is now in place in Ceduna, Kununurra, and Wyndham and will commence in Kalgoorlie in 2018. Given the governments’ predilection for trials and expansions, it is likely it will spread to many more regional and urban locations in Australia. The government has nominated high levels of gambling, alcohol and drug use combined with high levels of welfare dependence as the reason for selecting these areas. Not much discussed though is that limited employment opportunities also exist in these areas.
People of working age receiving income support payments, such as parenting and carers’ payments, disability pension or the Newstart allowance, have these payments linked to the Cashless Debit Card. Those on age or veterans payment can volunteer to have their payments on the card. While the amount of money a person receives from Centrelink does not change, 80% of the payment is placed on the Indue card (named after the company the government has contracted to produce and manage the card), and 20% is paid into the person’s regular bank account. The government and Indue say the card works in most places with Eftpos facilities but will not allow the purchase of alcohol or gambling services and will not dispense cash.
Anna told us she feels “she has no freedom and is heavily restricted on what she can pay for using her Indue card”. She said lack of access to cash makes her life as a single mother difficult and is not easy for her children as they see her worry all the time. Anna told us she had to save for months to afford school photographs as they only accepted cash payments. Treating her children to weekly lunch orders has become difficult and spontaneous treats at the local store are almost impossible unless, in order to do it, she spends additional money to meet the minimum purchase amount to access Eftpos with her card.
Anna said clothing prices in Ceduna are expensive but with her Indue card, she is unable to access buy/swap/sell sites and second hand stores as most of these only accept cash. On some occasions, Anna told us, she would pay for a friend’s fuel with her card in order to have them pay her back in cash. She said she finds this way of living makes it harder to budget and to save than it was before. Anna says that since she was put on the card, “it has made my depression and anxiety worse. I feel persecuted and sometimes just don’t want to go out and have to deal with it. I feel so powerless.”
Anna described going to another town “… but the card declines because the businesses don’t accept the card. Every time this happens, I feel embarrassed and judged because the card marks me out”. Anna told us “It’s worse when you go to another town like Port Augusta for shopping and medical appointments and big school events. You stick out so much.” She said, “The only good thing about using it in Ceduna is that so many people are using it and there is a kind of ‘safety in numbers’. It’s so easy to see what the card is because there are signs all over town that mark us. so everything points to us as lazy dole bludgers”.
We asked Anna if she could name the good things about the card. She said she doesn’t think there is anything good about the Cashless Debit Card and does not believe it should continue. Whilst she acknowledged problems of alcohol, drugs and gambling, she believes this is not an effective way to address the issues. “Get the doctors involved and do smaller studies with an emphasis on helping people. I would do it that way, not have something like this that just punishes people and makes them feel even more like life is getting away from them.” Anna told us that most people in Ceduna felt this way, and that the Cashless Debit Card was “dropped like a bomb on the town. People receiving the card did not have enough knowledge about how the system worked and local professionals didn’t have the answers either.”
Anna said that she thinks the “statistics and interviewing are not accurately representing the people on the card.” She mentioned an evaluation exercise where interviewers stood outside the supermarket and spoke to people shopping. Anna told us she noted that most who were willing to talk were not Aboriginal people. “There was an Aboriginal lady doing research but locals would prefer to speak with a local”. When the results were publicised Anna said a lot of locals said “They didn’t speak to me! Where was that meeting? I didn’t hear about it.”
To Anna, the Cashless Debit Card is a ‘useless piece of plastic’. Technical problems with the card have caused a great deal of stress for her and for others.
Checking the balance on the card requires her to have an app on her phone. She tried this but it used up too much data space on her phone and required either Wi-Fi or a bigger data allocation. Some people she knows do not have access to a smart phone or internet, making it a serious and costly challenge to check their account balance.
Anna pointed out that once a purchase has been made, the money is not immediately removed from the balance displayed on the app and can sometimes take more than a day to be withdrawn. She said she rang Indue and they told her it is because the stores haven’t yet done their banking. She told us this makes it difficult at times to track her finances and ensure her card will not decline. Anna also said that people who don’t readily understand the cards limitations and the built in delay in internet transactions, are constantly subject to the humiliating and confusing experience of having less money than they thought they had.
Anna told us she does not believe the incidence of alcohol and drugs will reduce much by controlling how people will spend their money. She said, “If they really want it, they will get it. Forcing people onto this form of welfare is ineffective and harmful.”
Anna told us she is “worried about the expansion of the Cashless Debit Card particularly because there is no real transparency about the program. The government only hears what it wants to hear and it just wants to control us all.” Anna said, “Single mothers are doing their best but there is no work around and for those in the outlying areas, there is even less chance.”
Anna said she is passionate about sharing her experience, as the wider community seem to be unaware of the effects it is having.
At times, Anna said she has encountered people shocked to learn she is on Cashless Debit Card as they hold the misconception that it is Indigenous people only. Anna says the jobs are just not there and that she established her own background of solid employment in another place. She says many on the card, Indigenous and not, have no criminal or drug related history and are just parenting to the best of their ability in rural Australia.
Single mothers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, deserve the best support we, as a society can provide, as they raise their children.
Anna has asked us to share her story to highlight the lack of consultation with people negatively affected by the card and to stress the importance of ensuring their voices are heard as it is expanded across different regions of Australia.
CSMC is grateful to Anna for her time and frankness. We have changed her name to protect her privacy.
Media attention has focused on insights the data provides into significant economic shifts, such as those under 40 being locked out of the housing market or struggling with higher mortgage debt, and significant changes in attitudes to same sex marriage.
The lens that Council of Single Mothers and their Children applies is, of course, to examine what the data tells us about the families we represent and support, and the picture is bleak.*
21% of single parent families are living in poverty in 2015, a figure that has hardly budged since 2001.
Children in single parent families have a “very high” probability of living in poverty, with 23% in poverty in 2015, and the figure has remained stubbornly around 20-25% from 2001 to 2015. By comparison, the rate of poverty for children in couple families is currently about 5%. Have a look at the graph below from the report – it speaks volumes.
Levels of welfare reliance (where income support benefits are the main source of income) are dramatically higher for single parent families, although they have dropped over the time period and now sit around 30%.
What interests me most, and seems to have received very little media attention, is that the data provides another significant insight into why poverty and welfare dependence are so high for single parent families. It devotes eight page to examining child support and the picture it paints is very revealing.
55% of majority-care parents (those with 50% of care or more) receive no child support, including both regular support and/or irregular payments for expenses such as school fees and clothing. 55% receive nothing! Furthermore, those receiving regular child support have seen payments go down: the mean amount received in 2013-2015 is $6,429 compared to $6,978 in 2002-2004 (converted to December 2015 prices).
Indeed, the HILDA report reads like a manual for maximising the chances of receiving the child support that has been calculated you need to raise your children (by the Child Support Agency in 83% of cases). You’re more like to receive your child support if you have two or more children; if the minority parent does not have other children in their household; if the majority parent is employed part-time (but not full-time or unemployed); and if there is frequent contact between the children and the minority-care parent.
So here we have a vital piece of information on the stubborn poverty single parent families are facing, and the high levels of welfare reliance. The majority of these households (84% at least) are female headed and these women are undertaking the caring responsibilities for their children and, where possible, working. They are doing their best to support their families and give their children every chance they can.
Many of these households are reliant on government benefits to support their caring roles and the inadequacy of income support payments, which bodies such as the Business Council of Australia have deemed insufficient, is driving this poverty. The additional factor, and a key driver for welfare reliance, is unpaid child support.
The total amount of unpaid child support in Australia is upwards of $1.5 billion. Children’s ability to fully engage in their schools and their communities now and into the future are being damaged by the poverty in which they are struggling. Their mothers are doing all they can to create a good life, provide opportunities for their children to thrive, and find a way out of poverty.
Single mothers need more than just adequate income. They need flexible employment and study, affordable childcare, secure housing and support to foster their own wellbeing and their children’s. And they need the child support they are owed to be paid on time and in full. But even without easy access to all of these fundamental components of life, single mothers are doing a great job raising their children.
This is what the data tells me: the true heros are our single mothers. Let’s start treating them that way.
*The report does not desegregate the single parent family data by gender, however women head approximately 84% of single parent families.
As the financial year ends, CSMC is celebrating having balanced the budget in 2016-2017, as small organisations do, and is scrutinising our budget for 2017-2018 to ensure that every dollar is put to work.
As I also reach the end of my first year as CEO, I am delighted to have achieved this breakeven point. Even with this positive financial outcome, we are urgently raising funds to contribute to our emergency relief fund in order to manage the unprecedented need. Additional funds are needed to assist single mothers overwhelmed by a high energy bill or school costs, an unexpected crisis or the costs of securing housing. You can donate to make a difference to single mother families in crisis.
In this year, we have re-branded to emphasise the strength, vision, endurance and wisdom of single mothers. Our new website is loaded with valuable information for single mothers on topics such as parenting solo, government benefits, dealing with government agencies, housing, family violence, managing money, work and study, and much more. Having this information online will suit women who need information late at night when the kids are in bed, or on a weekend. They can now turn to our website and email us with any questions they have.
Our telephone Support Line continues to be a key resource for single mothers and is available during school hours. Here single mothers can discuss any topic with our professional Contact Workers, who are also single mothers themselves.
We have completed a Strategic Plan 2017-2020 that grounds our work in the structural barriers that single mothers continue to encounter and how CSMC, as a small organisation, can best address them. We will focus our work on six priority areas that affect single mothers in Australia:
Secure and sufficient income
Flexible employment and study options that accommodate caring responsibilities
Safe, affordable and appropriate housing
Equitable Family Law processes and adequate supports
Fostering the wellbeing of single mothers to ensure they can thrive, parent to the best of their ability, and build a good future for themselves and their children
Securing a fair go for their children.
This strategy will shape our work over the next three years and we will collaborate with other community organisations, government, philanthropic bodies and individuals to maximise our impact. While the Strategic Plan officially kicks in on 1 July, this exciting next stage is already underway.
In reflecting on our progress this year and the health of the organisation – our plans, our strong and capable team and the incredible history on which we build – I feel optimistic that we have another great year ahead. I know that CSMC will continue to reinforce the resilience of single mothers, share their joys and challenges, and have a significant impact on single mother families in Victoria and across Australia.
The 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’. This is a significant contributor to 40% of children in single mother families living in poverty.
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:
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’.
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
‘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
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…
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
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
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.
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.
Policy & Communications
 ABC News: Budget 2016: KPMG urges Federal Government to look beyond next election 28th April 2016
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
The 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.
CEO – Council of Single Mothers and their Children
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 lesscapable 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