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Issue #1612      September 25, 2013

Families, single parents in policy limbo

The vulnerable in the community must be dreading what the Abbott government’s “end of the age of entitlement” will look like. Times were already tough under the previous management without an open declaration of war on the underprivileged. The indications are worrying. Cuts and reneging on pay deals to low-paid workers in aged and child care were announced before the new Abbott Ministry had even been sworn in. The talk is about building a McDonald’s-style Australia of “lifters, not leaners”. Among the most anxious would be the country’s 600,000 single parent families who, in this era of precarious employment, often find themselves relying on government “benefits”.

The former Labor government scrapped the Parenting Payment for single parents with children aged eight and over in 2012 while Julia Gillard was PM. The 65,000 people targeted, mostly women, were dumped unceremoniously onto the dole, known as the Newstart Allowance. It was said to be an act of “tough love” to get single parents off the labour market’s sidelines and into jobs. The Howard government said the same thing when it shoved single parents off the benefit when children turned 16. Labor promptly reduced that to 12 years.

Kevin Rudd commented that the government was being excessively ruthless and spoke vaguely of reviewing the legislation.

Welfare advocates condemned the move.

“We acknowledge we have a revenue challenge in this country but ACOSS [the Australian Council of Social Service] does not accept that we’re not capable of finding the revenue to address the growing rates of child poverty. One in six children lives below the poverty line,” chief executive Cassandra Goldie said.

The National Council of Single Mothers and Their Children launched their Have a Heart campaign. “There has been a 15 percent increase in child poverty in this country since 2001 and there is no evidence that this [policy] will actually help these families or the long-term futures of the children in this country,” Council chief executive Terese Edwards said.

Policy makers have obviously been playing to a conservative, often religious, electorate. Nobody seriously imagines that moving parents onto the dole, which currently stands at 77 percent of the official poverty line, is going to help parents source childcare, transport, a new wardrobe and suitable training to get a job on a very tight labour market.

The maximum rate of Newstart is $537.80 a fortnight while the maximum rate of the Parenting Payment is $683.50 a fortnight. The work or study requirements for the Parenting Payment are already the same as for Newstart. The Schoolkids Bonus is set to be scrapped.

Charities have been inundated with requests for help with food, rent and utility bills. Services note a spike in callers considering suicide. Brothel owners have commented on an increase in the numbers of aspiring sex-workers.

In some areas, like the City of Wyndham, evictions are on a sharp rise. The fast growing area has some of Melbourne’s lowest rents but also has an official unemployment rate of 9 percent. The reality is much worse. Police have executed 22 eviction warrants a month over the past year.

The case of Kylie was quoted in The Age recently. Along with thousands of others, she was pushed onto Newstart. Her finances quickly fell apart. She has been given 16 days to leave the accommodation she has been renting. “It was my son’s birthday on Saturday so I had to try and keep it as normal as I can for him,” she said.

“My son started crying straight away when I told him later we had to move, saying, ‘Mum, I want to go to the same school.’ I kept saying as long as we’re together, we’ll be OK. But I can’t promise that we will. I have no idea what I’ll do. I’ve bought a blow up mattress because we will probably have to sleep in the car.”

Public policy matters. People suffer terribly when reactionary forces dominate the debate and crush their opposition in the struggle over welfare rights.

The warning bells have been rung and unions, left and progressive political forces and community organisations will have to rally as never before to stop their neighbourhoods descending further into decay.

Next article – “Public Right to Know” defining issue over boat arrivals – Statement SafeCom

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