In the 50 year history of Council of Single Mothers and their Children, we have often shared enthusiastically in the celebrations of women, our achievements, and the gradually improving position of women overall.
This year on International Women’s Day we are focussed on the brutality of the past thirteen years for single mother families.
Beginning in 2006 with the Howard government’s ‘Welfare to Work’ changes, new single parent families with a youngest child aged 8 were put on the wildly insufficient Newstart Allowance. This ‘unemployment benefit’ belies the unpaid care work essential with children still under the legal age to be left alone, and the frequently insecure paid work that many women undertake in school hours. Until their children are older, many single mother who are starting a business, studying, caring for aged relatives, repairing the lingering distress from family violence etc. still rely on or require a top-up, from the government social services benefit.
In 2012 as she made her misogyny speech, Prime Minister Gillard completed Howard’s manoeuvre and passed legislation to move all single parents with a youngest child of 8 years and still grandfathered on the Parenting Payment Single, onto Newstart from 1 January 2013. This move meant a drop in income up to $175 per pay for approximately 163,000 single mother families.
In 2014, the Abbott government hurt single parent and other poor families further with the family tax benefit freeze, pensioner education supplement cut, and changes to childcare. In 2016 the ParentsNext program was introduced as a trial and expanded nationally in July 2018, and now encompasses 75,000 participants. 96% of these are women and 19% are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Also in 2018 we saw the additional burden and humiliation of the third party verification of the single parents’ relationship status.
The blows have been coming thick and fast on single mother. The numbers tell the story: since 2013, the rate of poverty in single parent families not in paid employment has risen from 35% to an astonishing 59% (ACOSS Poverty in Australia 2018).
So this year, on International Women’s Day, we are releasing the opening statement made by our CEO Jenny Davidson to the Senate Committee on Community Affairs considering ParentsNext. This highly punitive and discriminatory government program is location based and targets:
Indigenous single parents who receive government benefits and have a 6 months old baby
Non-Indigenous single parents who receive government benefits and have a 12 month old baby
Single parents who have not earned money in the past six months and have a 3 year old child.
The program requires single mothers to jump through hoops to receive benefits essential to feeding their families. They must participate in activities that may not improve their work readiness, and cope with complex reporting requirements and the threat (and reality) of cutting their only income source if they do not comply, or report incorrectly.
This episode is about an individual complaint that Juanita McLaren has put into the UN with support from Terese Edwards of the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children. The complaint is based on the optional protocol of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, called CEDAW, which the Australian Government signed in 1983. The complaint submits that the Government’s punitive treatment of single mothers, in particular forcing them to undertake mutual obligations to receive government benefits, is a breach of their human rights obligations.
The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is happening in New York in March, as it does each year. This is the 63rd session of CSW, and the priority theme this year is “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” Terese and Juanita are headed to CSW for the first time, and Carole is attending as she regularly does.
Our recent survey of 1100 single mothers in Australia found just over half are earning less than $40,000 a year, including 19% with income below than $20,000. Almost half of the 25% of respondents reported working full time said they had difficulties meeting general living costs.
Here we share more on the financial realities facing single mothers, in line with Anti-Poverty Week.
Earlier this week, ACOSS released their Poverty in Australia 2018 Report, with data indicating once again that sole parent families have the highest poverty rate of all family types in Australia, with a massive 32% of such families living below the poverty line (measured based on 50% of median income).
Indeed, poverty in sole parent families is at levels significantly higher than single people, couples or couple families of any age, and has been throughout the past 25 years of economic growth in Australia.
The ACOSS Report clearly defines the sources of this poverty: moving single parents from Parenting Payment Single to the lower Newstart Allowance when their youngest child is 8 is driving poverty, as is having only one wage to cover the ever-increasing costs of living in Australia.
“A major source of child poverty is the high poverty rate (32%) among sole parent families, who must generally rely on a single income.”
ACOSS Poverty in Australia 2018 Report
What the report fails to do is to provide a true insight into the gendered makeup of “sole parent families”.
Eighty-one per cent of single-parent families are headed by a single mother – the vast majority, as the report fleetingly describes in the section dedicated to gender.
Women head 765,000 families in Australia, and about 245,000 women and their children are living in acute poverty. It is amongst single, female-led families that we see the greatest feminisation of poverty in Australia, and the confluence of unpaid caring work, the pay gap and paternalistic government policies. Indeed, the issue is spread across single mothers in most income brackets, who are working, scrimping and going hungry to try to provide for their children on a single income.
In September and October, the Council of Single Mothers and their Children undertook a national survey of single mothers to get a better sense of the financial security of singles mothers, with over 1100 respondents.
While just over half are earning less than $40,000 per year, including 19% with a disturbingly low income of less than $20,000, there is a stark story to be told by those women who are working, are living above the poverty line, and yet are barely making ends meet.
Twenty-five per cent of our survey respondents reported they are working full time, and of these, almost half had difficulties meeting their general living costs in the past 12 months. Seventy-nine per cent of these full-time employed single mothers are concerned or very concerned about their current financial well-being, and 87% are concerned or very concerned about their longer-term financial well-being.
We know the issues these mothers are concerned about – limited superannuation due to time out of the workforce or working part-time caring for children; no ability to save for a deposit to enter the housing market, and other issues. These women are on a trajectory to join the increasing numbers of older, single women facing homelessness.
Right now, however, these women’s primary concern is providing for their children.
We know that for many, this is entirely up to them, as demonstrated by the unpaid child support debt in Australia of $1.2 billion – that largely represents men defaulting on the costs of raising their children. This figure is hugely understated, as is only includes those families on the books of the Child Support Agency; a good number of families have private arrangements for the transfer of child support, which the government blithely assumes is paid in full.
As one survey respondent told us on the impact of a shortage of money:
“We have no insurance, house, care personal, health… none. We go without dental care. There is always stress, sometimes it makes me physically vomit I get so stressed about how to pay and do everything. We don’t eat healthy nutritious meals every night, some meals are replaced with toast or noodles, to stretch out the food.”
There’s a mathematical rationale to this: for a two-parent family, there are 48 hours in any day in which to work, care, parent and rest. In a single parent family, there are only 24 hours to do all those things – work, run a home, parent, ferry kids around and sleep. You can guess which is the first thing to go: sleep, along with any hope of having your own life.
For Anti-Poverty Week this year, Council of Single Mothers and their Children held an event called “Solutions to the entrenched poverty of single mother families”. While we didn’t entirely solve the issue in two hours, many solutions were proposed, some new — such as shifting the meaning of money — others well known, like valuing the unpaid work of parents and carers.
Indeed, the issues that affect single mothers do not affect them in isolation: single mothers need permanent part-time jobs that fit with their family responsibilities, as do other parents, carers and the growing demographic caring for ageing parents. Single parents need more assistance with the costs of education, such as free public transportation and access to extracurricular activities, as do other Health Care Card holders.
One suggestion was that we need a public backlash to make real change happen, and we agree! Single mothers are invaluable members of our community who are raising great kids. They are working hard to provide a good life for their children and they deserve more than grinding poverty and a compromised future for themselves and their children.
Council of Single Mothers and their Children are mobilising single mothers and their allies to take actions, small and large, to achieve a society where single mother families are valued and treated equally and fairly. Join us!
CEO – Council of Single Mothers and their Children
This article was also published by Women’s Agenda. Council of Single Mothers and their Children thank them for their support.
I’m a single parent of 3 primary school-aged children. A few years ago I was moved off the Single Parent Pension and onto Newstart. Since then I have been routinely harassed, bullied and misled by my “JobActive” Provider (name of provider supplied).
Despite never being in breach of the many and confusing “Mutual Obligation Requirements”, (including doing 6 months Work for the Dole), I have on numerous occasions had my payments suspended due to my JobActive Provider’s errors. These include not sending correct codes to my work-for-the-dole place, not putting in the correct codes for a Medical certificate for one of my children, and not marking my attendance at weekly job search appointments.
I have had to ring up and get each of these errors resolved.
Despite me always being polite and cheerful to my consultants, they are often rude, unapologetic about their mistakes, belittling and disdainful in their interactions with me.
In my last interview before these school holidays, my consultant informed me that they would no longer exempt me from any of my weekly requirements over the holidays, and I was therefore required to bring all 3 children into the office for supervised job searching on their computers. I said I had no child care (they already know I have never had any help with the children, and there is no child care in my area). This made no difference. Another consultant chimed in at this point to say ‘yes, I needed to bring the children in, and that many other single parents did this’. Apparently single mothers bringing their children into the office for job searching is the policy at this provider.
Because I felt stressed at the thought of having 3 bored children disrupting everyone in an open plan office for hours over the holidays, I rang the Dept of Employment hotline and spoke to a guy about this. He was shocked I had been asked to do this. He said the guidelines specifically state that having no child care is a valid excuse for not going to activities. He said children shouldn’t have to spend their holidays sitting in a provider’s office, and my consultants were wrong to tell me that this was a compulsory requirement.
I rang the provider back to tell them I wouldn’t be able to bring my kids into their office over the holidays, and I hoped it would be okay to do my job search at home. My consultant very rudely snapped “Don’t they want their Mum to get paid?” She then told me that I “wasn’t the only person who had to do this”. She then abruptly hung up the phone.
I rang back and asked to speak to the site manager and explained what the Dept of Employment had told me. He said he needed to speak to his staff to clarify their policy and call me back. He rang back later to say I was excused from that week’s job searching “and if you can’t make it next week, ring and let us know.”
Employment providers like this one are (deliberately?) misleading women like myself, by telling single parents on Newstart that they have to drag their children into unsuitable offices for hours of supervised job searching.
Here is the relevant part from Jobactive: Mutual Obligation Requirements (including Annual Activity Requirements) Guidelines:
“PCPs (principle carer parents) need to continue to meet their part-time Mutual Obligation Requirements at all other times and during school holidays. However, Providers MUST consider whether the PCP can access appropriate care and supervision for their children during this time. If the PCP is required to undertake an activity but is unable to obtain suitable child care, they will have a Valid Reason or Reasonable Excuse to not undertake that activity.
If the PCP has a Valid Reason or Reasonable Excuse, alternative requirements need to be set to enable the job seeker to meet their Mutual Obligation Requirements. For example, while PCPs are not required to attend face-to-face Provider Appointments during school holidays, they are required to engage with Providers through other means, such as by telephone. Job Search is also something that PCPs can undertake from their homes while they are caring for children on school holidays.”
I hope this story can help other single mothers trying to survive in the JobActive system. Please stand up for yourselves.
Becoming a single mother is not part of our carefully made plans. In fact, it is one of life’s most complex curve balls and something that can take a long time to come to terms with.
After the breakdown of a relationship, especially one involving children, the thought of rebuilding a new life as a single mother can seem overwhelming. Yet this transition can bring out some wonderful qualities in you and make you realise that you are more resilient than you think.
It is a time of discovery and a time of learning. I believe I have learnt more from my journey into single motherhood than at any other time in my life. I’d love to share these lessons with you.
I learnt about acceptance and the peace it can bring
The road to becoming a single mum can bring strong emotions, including anger, resentment, hurt and grief. To live with these feelings long-term is soul destroying. I believe we should accept the past, learn from it and move on. We should work to accept that we don’t have control of everything and everyone around us, and that is OK. And we should accept that our present and our future is not always what we planned. Acceptance on a higher-level brings peace, which ultimately makes for a more content existence for you and your children.
I learnt I have the power to change things
Life is not something that just happens to us. Yes, there are many outside influences, but essentially, we are the writers of our own story. I watch single mums everyday who strive to better themselves. Whether it be training for a new career or improving mental and/or physical health, these are woman who have the power to make positive change in their lives. I think this capacity is in us all. Always believe in your power. It is the driving force that will get you through the hard times, and the energy that will ensure you live your very best life.
I discovered the strength within me
I had no idea how strong I really was until I became a single mother. We are strong because we need to be, for us and for our children. Strength comes in the form of courage, determination and independence. As we face the challenges of single motherhood, we dig deep and use all the resources we have, many of which we had no idea we possessed. If you don’t feel you are strong, I encourage to recount what you have done during the last 48 hours, both practically and emotionally. You may by surprised with the strength you see within you.
I discovered the resilience of my children and loved them (even more) for it
As my children grow, they never cease to amaze me. Never more so than through the separation process. I have watched my daughters adapt and overcome as their lives have changed immeasurably. One of my biggest worries as a single mother is the affect it will have on my children. And yes, having separated parents is defining for any child. Like with us, they will have highs and lows. Yet, I have watched my girls show resilience, empathy and understanding on a level that has astounded me. What I have learn from my children has been humbling and has helped me on many levels.
Lucy works with hundreds of single mothers through her business and popular FB group, the Single Mum Vine. She sits at the centre of the think-tank of modern-day single motherhood and is a sought-after social commentator on single parent issues. As well as having her own blog and podcast series, she has appeared several times on national television, speaks regularly on national and local radio, and writes articles for online and print parenting, news, lifestyle and business communities.
The Australian government is forcing us into paid employment when our youngest child turns eight. For many of us, this translates into an unspoken truth that if you don’t have paid employment, you and your children could be living on the streets.
There are limited employment opportunities that fit into school hours and once you have been out of the workforce for a few years raising your children, you aren’t going to be on the top of an employer’s shortlist.
What would work for your family? If you could work three nights a week instead of five days, would nights pay more so you could be away from your home and children less? Would working at 4am to midday be more productive for your family? Are you wanting to be a nurse or a police officer and being available for shift work can improve your career goals?
If you don’t have a network of readily available babysitters who can provide childcare outside the traditional childcare access hours, then certain employment opportunities or career goals won’t be available to you. For this reason, in-home childcare is vital for working mothers.
In-home childcare is incredibly important for single mothers who want to improve their job prospects or future career growth while raising children. It also has benefits for children, as they can sleep and wake up in their own beds while mum is at work.
Perhaps you hadn’t considered the idea of a nanny because of the cost. Perhaps you already understand that this level of care is only available to those wealthy enough to afford it.
Perhaps you were one of the 3000 families who applied to the now defunct National Nanny Program (NNP) but left because it was unaffordable. Perhaps you were hoping the new version of the program would be more affordable. I know I was. I know there has been some advocacy from in-home childcare providers to make this new service more affordable, but to date these have been unsuccessful.
From 2 July 2018, the maximum childcare benefit available for in-home childcare is $25.48 per hour, and that’s if you’re eligible for the full subsidy. If, like me, you’re only eligible for 85% of the subsidy, then you’ll receive $21.65 p/h.
Using my subsidy, this is what I have been quoted as the costs of in-home childcare across the week:
Out Of Pocket
$39.90 p/h, less subsidy $21.65
$45.32 p/h, less subsidy $21.65
$60.00 p/h less subsidy $21.65
For me, this is completely unrealistic and I suspect it will be for most single mothers using the scheme. Our job prospects are already limited, yet we must attempt to secure jobs that pay the bills whilst managing the full-time job of raising our children. Work outside of ‘normal’ hours may not be a goal for all single mothers, but for some, it will be a preference.
For others, it’s a career choice or a way to maintain a work-life balance. The government, whether deliberately or unintentionally, is unfairly preventing you from accessing certain career paths by not providing an adequate subsidy for in-home childcare. An evaluation of the NPP highlighted how affordability of childcare continues to be a barrier for parental workforce participation, particularly for mothers.
They want us to work and a practical in-home childcare subsidy would help us do so. If you feel strongly about this as I do, write to your Federal Member of Parliament.
Naomi Honeychurch is a single mother and a member of CSMC
Council of Single Mothers and their Children (CSMC) Board Member Kylie Ball shares her tips for keeping physically and mentally healthy while raising children.
As single mothers, we constantly juggle all sorts of important matters: our children’s physical, emotional and financial well-being; our household budget; getting enough food on the table; getting our children to school and other activities; and possibly part-time or full-time work. We deal with the myriad issues that arise in these areas every day, and for many of us with limited support.
When we are stretched we often forget to consider our own wellbeing. Many single mothers find that in prioritising family or work commitments, they simply don’t have the time or energy to look after their own health. With so much conflicting and often unnecessarily complicated information available in the media and on the internet, it can be difficult to know the best way to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
I am the single mother of a gorgeous 10-year-old daughter. I’m also a Professor conducting research in the areas of public health, health psychology and behaviour, and a member of the Board of CSMC. Like most single mothers, time is among the most precious and scarce resource I have. So over my years of research, I’ve come up with three simple, time-efficient and cost-effective strategies anyone can use to have a positive impact on their health and wellbeing.
1. Move every day.
There are so many misconceptions about exercise–that it has to be vigorous to benefit, that you need a gym membership or special equipment, that it costs too much, that it’s time-consuming, or that you enjoy playing sport. These are all myths!
Just about the single best thing a woman can do for her health is to fit in 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week. It doesn’t even have to be all in one hit–you can accumulate shorter bouts here and there throughout the day.
There are lots of ways you can do this:
Park further from the shops or your child’s school or work and walk for 10 minutes
Play a short game of with your kids in the park or backyard
Use the ad breaks in your favourite show to do some squats or jumping jacks
Meet a friend for a walk rather than a sit-down coffee
Moving like this every day is the best preventive medicine for almost every chronic, non-communicable disease you can think of, and is a fabulous promoter of both physical and mental health. It also promotes increased energy so even if you feel tired, building these habits will help in the long-term.
2. Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole foods.
If there countless myths about exercise, there are even more about diet. Contrary to popular opinion, the facts are:
You don’t have to ‘go on a diet’ to eat well and maintain a healthy weight. In particular, ‘fad’ diets that are spruiked by celebrities are often impractical and sometimes downright harmful.
You don’t need to buy special ingredients, superfoods, or complicated recipe books to eat well. Nor do you need to cut out everything you enjoy to have a balanced diet.
Eating well often costs less than eating cheap takeaway.
One of the best sources of advice on how to eat well is the Dietary Guidelines for Australians. These are based on decades of scientific research about the best approach to eating for a long and healthy life.
To summarise, this approach involves drinking plenty of water and eating
Vegetables and legumes/beans (frozen or tinned varieties can be just as nutritious as fresh! Look out for lower salt versions)
Reduced fat milk, yoghurt, cheese
Lean meats and poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds
3. Look after your mental health.
Mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety are currently a major health concern in Australia. As single mothers can be at particular risk, it’s vital we look after our mental health.
Some things we can do to maintain strong mental health include:
Moving every day (exercise is a proven powerful antidote to depression and anxiety) and eating well
Finding adaptive ways to handle stress–exercise, talking to someone
Getting enough sleep
Trying to fit in time to enjoy things–a hobby, or social events
If you are struggling, seek professional help, from your GP, beyondblue or Lifeline (ph. 13 11 14)
Single mothers pour everything into taking care of our families, but we can’t pour from an empty cup! Looking after our health and wellbeing is crucial for ourselves and our children. In following these simple strategies, I’m hopeful other single mothers will feel empowered to take control of their physical and mental health.
Kylie is a Professor of Public Health at Deakin University and a Fellow of Australia’s Academy of Health and Medical Sciences. She is a single mother and has just resigned from the Board of the Council of Single Mothers and their Children.
Every Mother’s Day, I think about the joy I feel in being a mother. I think about the women who wanted to be mothers but didn’t get to be. I think about women who lost babies before their time, and all those people who have lost their own mums.
Mostly I think about what a blessing motherhood is – albeit a mixed blessing at times. I like to say it’s the best ‘hood of all.
What I don’t think about is the absent fathers. Sometimes on Father’s Day, I like to commend myself and all single mothers on our double duty – all the ‘father’s tasks’ we pull off as part of our normal workload. Whether it’s wrestling, fixing, lugging or managing tasks that would be much easier with two parents, from moving furniture to parenting toddlers or teens, we do what needs to be done. We ensure our children are loved, cared for and secure, whether there is still a father in the picture or not.
On Mother’s Day, it’s all rolled into one. It’s a day to acknowledge all that mums give, whether they’re partnered or single mums. All that we do, all that our mums did, and still do. It’s pretty universally known that mums keep things moving along, keep homes running, families functioning, calendars coordinated, and yet don’t get thanked a lot.
Mother’s Day is an opportunity to stop and thank our mums, and celebrate other mums for all they do, something I think that single mothers really need with no partner to say it. I think it’s a pity the day has been commercialised. Ultimately, what commercialisation has done is individualise gratitude rather than acknowledge what is often a collective endeavour – motherhood. What most mothers want is a special moment of appreciation from their children, rather than another candle, box of chocolates or mug.
That’s why I created our Honouring Mums campaign. The campaign provides an opportunity to thank all mums, whilst supporting those doing it tough, and also to send a special message to the mum you’re honouring, if you wish.
I certainly had a realisation when I became a mum that motherhood doesn’t end when your kids ‘grow up’. It might ease for a few years, but when your children become parents a whole other shift of grandmothering begins that can be very demanding.
When I became a mum, I was pretty much on my own. My husband was overseas and by the time my son was 6 weeks old he was really out of the picture. My mother stayed with me for the first two weeks after my son was born, and brought meals every day for another 2 weeks; it brings tears to my eyes just remembering all she did. And she’s kept up the support; my father too. There’s a lot of ways to be a single mother, and without my parents’ support mine would certainly have been a much harder road. They were my son’s number 2 and 3 people, largely filling the chasm left by an absent father.
I’ve also been lucky to have great support from my mother-in-law and her family.
I don’t believe in buying into commercialism on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or Valentine’s Day. But as Mother’s Day approaches this year, I’m sending my heartfelt thanks, and a gorgeous e-card from our campaign page, to my mother and my mother-in-law with a donation made on their behalf.
I hope you will too.
CSMC Mother’s Day e-card from honouringmums.raisely.com
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 email@example.com 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.