According to popular misconceptions, single parents like me are welfare cheats who are lazy and don't want to work, have children to different fathers and/or they ‘breed’ to get a free ride from Centrelink.
Those who find it easy to admonish us seem to think that single mothers typically live in spacious and comfortable homes; drink alcohol and use drugs to excess; surround themselves with a succession of "no-good boyfriends"; raise their children on a diet of daytime TV and junk food; and have plenty of money left over for holidays, hairstyles and false fingernails.
But that's not the way it is at all.
Such negative stereotypes are reinforced in biased reporting in television current-affair programs. A recent segment on Channel Nine's A Current Affair set ‘battlers’ against ‘bludgers’ in a search for ‘Australia’s Dole Hotspots’. In the aftermath of programs like this, Facebook pages become littered with insulting and demeaning posts such as:
- "Do what America do if they haven't got a job in 6 months; they cut the money; simple" or
- "What a load of ... most people on the dole, have been on it since they have been old enough to receive it!!!" or
- "When they are told they have to look for work or they will lose our tax dollars, they find some shifty doctor to grant them disability or claim they are drug addicts or alcoholics and get what they want” or
- “It's only the handful that do the right thing!!!” and “Career baby machines.”
These comments are demoralising and far from the truth. With no real knowledge of the individual circumstances that have placed single parents onto welfare, people have no right to judge. Single parents find themselves without a partner for a variety of reasons. For most, the challenge of raising children alone is forced upon them by circumstance. Common reasons that I have seen include domestic violence, death, infidelity or financial strain.
Where we stand
Australia's most comprehensive household survey has found that children of single parents are sinking further into poverty while those raised in two-parent households are less likely to be poor than a decade ago. Nearly one in four children living with a single parent is below the poverty line, compared with 7.6% those living with two parents, according to the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey. Children who grew up in poverty are often less educated, struggle to find a job and suffer ''inter-generational transmission of welfare dependence''. Changes to the single-parent pension will only cause higher poverty rates among children of lone parents.
Another common misconception about single parents is that they do not work. In reality, 68% of sole parents are in some form of paid work while 27% are studying to improve their chances of employment and to gain a position with high enough wages to pull themselves and their children out of the poverty trap.
Compared with partnered parents, single parents tend to have lower educational levels. The ABS reports that in 2006, 15% more single parents than partnered parents had left school before year 12 while twice as many partnered parents than single parents held a bachelor degree or higher qualification. However, the same report also states lone parents in 2006 were more likely to be studying than partnered parents, mostly part-time, and mostly at TAFE's or higher education institutions.
These facts make nonsense of claims that single parents are not taking steps to improve their lives.
The big issues for us
Sadly, changes introduced this year have made it tougher for many single parents.
As of January 1st JET fees were increased by 1,000% and cuts to Parenting Payment Single onto Newstart decreased sole parental income by up to $135 a week. This move forced some parents to give up their dream of improving their earning potential through education, thus trapping them into a cycle of poverty and low paid employment.
Alternative pathways provided by the Government such as the 'Working for the Dole Scheme' do not give sole parents any real work experience that can help them in their ability to gain a position that would suit them.
Job Network providers need to work with individual parents and focus on their strengths to find employment that actually would suit their needs. Paid work experience could be a better option than work for the dole scheme as it would be an incentive to recipients to continue in the role provided them. Employers should be encouraged to develop the skills of sole parents, thus leading to better productivity and work skills.
Another of the many limitations facing single parents are the time-constraints imposed by the simple task of parenting. If the Government wants to force sole parents into work it must also encourage businesses to create more job-opportunities within school hours. Job-sharing is a great idea and should be more encouraged.
At the same time there is also a need for more flexible childcare arrangements, including weekend care for those doing shift work and jobs that fall between school hours. The fact is full-time job positions are not a good option for sole parents as they only get to spend limited valuable time with their children to help them with their homework and enable them to participate in after-school activities. Without the aid of a partner, family member or friend, this juggling act is almost impossible.
Another unfair assumption is the suggestion that single parents contribute to intergenerational welfare-dependency. While intergenerational welfare is a reality, it should be analysed with caution: the ABS Survey of Employment and Unemployment Patterns (SEUP) collected information from a group of job-seekers over a period of several years. It shows that children of welfare recipients are more likely to receive welfare later in life; but it also indicated that a “father's employment appears to be have been more influential on young people's employment outcomes than mothers.”
So why is it that sole parents, who are predominantly mothers, are punished with such harsh welfare cuts, while nothing is mentioned of ensuring the non-custodial parents, who are mostly fathers, are not made responsible also, for the upbringing of their children?
As if all these things were not enough, single mothers are also highly susceptible to a range of other problems including: housing insecurity; limitations to mobility; debt accumulation; poor mental and physical health; disability and low levels of social support.
The protection provided for vulnerable single parents has been with us since the Whitlam era, but now that level of support is rapidly crumbling. We’re going backwards.
Negative propaganda aimed at welfare-recipients has made it easy for politicians of all persuasions to hide from their moral responsibility to protect vulnerable people.
That propaganda has also driven single parents like me into social exile. Now we must endure not only the challenge of facing the rising cost-of-living with a diminishing income, but also fend off unfounded suggestions that we are immoral addicts and cheats. It's heartbreaking!
To make matters even worse, the Government's idea that they can use punishment to teach people the value of work is seriously flawed. There is no research to support that reducing welfare payments increases work activity. It has always proved the opposite. It will not create new jobs out of thin air.
All it will do is push single parents further into poverty and depression. It is not a solution for us or for this country.
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Kerry Arch is part of an advocacy group known as the United Sole Parents of Australia. You can find the group on Facebook here.