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Issue #1581      February 13, 2013

Single parent welfare cuts impose crippling burdens

On February 5 single parents held a protest outside federal parliament against new welfare requirements. Protests were held simultaneously in major cities around the nation. Under the new regime, approximately 100,000 single parents who have been receiving the threadbare Parenting Payment welfare support since 2006, and whose youngest child is between eight and eleven years old are no longer eligible for that payment. Most of them have been transferred to the Newstart allowance (better named “Newstarve”), whose appallingly inadequate benefits haven’t been increased for almost 20 years.

For parents who rely fully on social security payments, (about 90 percent of whom are single mothers) there have been some minor improvements in the family tax benefits and the Schoolkids Bonus.

However, according to the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), under the new arrangements for the 2006 group, the overall loss of income for a sole-parent family with no earnings and one high school-age child is $33 per week, while a similar family with a primary school age child has lost $41 per week.

A sole parent family with no earnings who is studying and has one high-school aged child has lost $65 per week, and a similar family with a primary-school aged child has lost $73 per week.

Those formerly on the Parenting Payment who have managed to find part-time work are particularly disadvantaged by the Newstart income test, which allows them to earn only $31 per week before they start to lose a proportion of the payment, as opposed to $88 per week under the Parenting Payment scheme.

The government claims it wants to help single parents find a job. However, the new arrangements will have the opposite effect, because of the cuts to benefits and the loss of other entitlements, including the pensioner education supplement, which is not available under Newstart.

The government also claims that being on Newstart will motivate single parents find work, but parents receiving Parenting Payment benefits have always been required to seek work.

Welfare horror stories emerging

Terese Edwards, CEO of the National Council of Single Mothers, said that many sole parent families did not realise how much pain and loss the impact of the new policy would cause.

One mother of three children who does social work 12 hours a week and is studying to get a university degree to help her work, told ACOSS:

“ … I will lose $280 a fortnight even though I am doing what the government wants with regards to working and studying to fulfil my mutual obligations. A combination of reduced benefit amount and a harsher income cut-off point, coupled with losing my pensioner eduction supplement, will do this to me. I don’t understand how the government can justify these changes.”

Another mother with minimal family support (and none from her husband) said she wanted to study nursing but found her way blocked:

“I knew the chance of studying was out, since I had barely enough money to pay the rent and feed my children, let alone pay for textbooks, uniforms and any fees that the VET system doesn’t cover. Also I had no one to pick the kids up for me or help me out during the proposed vocational placement …

“So I waited until both my children were in school to study, but even then by the time my course is finished my boys will be well over eight!”

One single mum described her welfare experience as follows:

“It meant no specialist care for my child when she was diagnosed with a disease. It meant waiting for any healthcare for a long time. It meant no dental work whatsoever for any of us. It meant lack of opportunity for my children to partake in extra-curricular activities or to go to events or join a sports team or even visit the museum. It meant being around other kids from families with no money and exposing my children to all the behavioural problems [that the] economic distress ripple effect has.

“It has meant crummy run-down houses usually filled with mould and damp because that was all I could afford. This resulted in sickness and moving again and again, in fact three times in one year with a two year and a seven–year-old. The cycle perpetuates itself. It meant shame when my children had holes in their clothing and I couldn’t afford to buy new proper shoes for my growing children. It meant feeling trapped, like I wasn’t able to mean anything in the world. I was held back, tied down, surrounded by nothing but the burden of being powerless. It’s a vast feeling that surrounds your daily life ... .”

As one single mum told ACOSS: “ … I think any decision that (offers) a lower amount of support is just going to create not only more stress and hardship, but also more homelessness and starving families ... .”

In many cases families cannot help their children who become single parents because they themselves have their own problems, including disability, lack of education or job opportunities, and/or many other difficulties. Often single mothers have been the victims of domestic violence, or the fathers refuse to provide support, and in some cases there are simply no family members to turn to.

Last month, after the transfers had taken place, charities noted a sharp rise in the number of single parents seeking their help.

However, charities have limited means, and the owner of one brothel reported with evident satisfaction that some desperate single mothers were now taking the terrible decision to seek employment as sex workers in order to feed their families.

Labor policies worse than Howard government’s

A wealthy country like Australia could well afford to support single parents, but the Gillard government appears to believe that the way to go is to lump the problem onto families or charities.

In fact, in 2006 the Howard regime introduced the policy of diverting the existing Parenting Payment recipients onto Newstart when their oldest child turned 16, and transferring all new single parent welfare applicants from the Parenting Payment to Newstart when their oldest child turned eight.

The federal Labor Party, then in opposition, vigorously opposed all transitions to Newstart payments because the policy would leave sole parents who applied for welfare support after 2006 with lower payments, without improving their job prospects.

They were right! However, when Labor took office in 2007, it retained the policy. Moreover, last year the government introduced legislation to reduce the “grandfather” period so that families who were receiving Parenting Payment in 2006 would lose their entitlements to it when their youngest child turned 12, not 16.

And now under the latest policy change the age limit has been reduced further to eight years, so that sole parents whose youngest child is between 8-11 years old have now lost their Parenting Payment entitlements.

And just to add salt to the wound, members of this group will no longer have access to extended entitlements if they have another child.

The Gillard government’s policies are even more savage than those of the Howard government’s. They’re also remarkably short-sighted from a national viewpoint. Children in families forced into extreme poverty by such policies will suffer severe difficulties in development and will be at greater risk of mental health breakdowns, depression, poor schooling outcomes, obesity and criminal behaviour.

The controversy over the government’s treatment of single parents has recently focused on the sole parents who in 2006 were promised the Parenting Payment until their youngest child turned 16, but who have now been double-crossed.

However, the essential problem that all sole parents now face is the limitation of their entitlements to Newstart. The report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, which was released last year, expressed deep concern about the policy’s impact on sole parents.

It recommended a delay in the implementation of the policy until after completion of an inquiry into Newstart. It also concluded that by implementing the policy the government risked being in violation of the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Nevertheless, the government ignored the inquiry’s findings.

The biggest single problem facing the unemployed is the lack of job prospects. That’s a chronic problem under capitalism, especially where governments look to the the private sector to solve social problems such as unemployment.

The solution to the immediate problem that sole parents face is the replacement of Newstart with a program that provides decent entitlements, and the introduction of work transition and employment programs, including opportunities to work in government enterprises.

Alas, that’s not likely to happen under the Gillard government, and certainly not under the ultra-conservative Liberal/National coalition if they win this year’s elections, unless they’re subjected to absolutely crushing public pressure, and that’s something we should set our minds to achieving. Mind you, an even better solutiuon would be to replace them with political forces that will finally do the right thing.   

Next article – Editorial – The one way industrial relations street

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