By Terese Edwards, CEO, National Council of Single Mothers & their Children
From time to time Australia will put a spotlight on poverty and its impact. The issue gained a level of notoriety in the late 1980`s when the then Prime Minister Bob Hawk made child poverty a national concern. The action and response that accompanied the statement, ‘that no child shall live in poverty’, reduced poverty by 30%. Primarily, this was achieved through a new and increased approach to family assistance as well as the introduction of a child support scheme. However, over time the gains have been eroded; matters that had attracted the public interest and attention have not featured poverty and Australia has failed to institute an Anti-Poverty Plan, national measures or set targets.
Largely, poverty and its impacts have remained silent to the mainstream and the solution for single parents was to ‘get a job’. This simplistic and convenient response prevented any real exploration; it denied the gendered reality, the role and impact of unpaid care and it silenced the knowledge gained from the lived experience. Joint research led by the Australian Institute of Family Studies has found that equivalised household income after divorce declined for women but not for men. The research found that some women were able to recover their income after six years through repartnering, increased labour force participation, and an increased proportion of income coming from government benefits. However, this is not the case for divorced women with dependent children. Divorced women with dependent children found it difficult to recover their income post-divorce and that sole mothers with dependent children experienced difficulties combining paid work and family responsibilities.[i]
The dominate discourse, ‘get a job or suffered the consequence’ persisted it its entirety until the Federal Government`s Fair work Incentives Bill came into effect on 1 January 2013. A consequence of this Bill has been the forced moving of single parent families from a very modest payment known as The Parenting Payment Single (PPS) to the Newstart Allowance, colloquially referred to as the Dole. Subsequently, denying access to single parent families to a parenting payment once their youngest child was eight, or in their third or fourth year of primary school. The reaction to this outcome has put a spotlight on the circumstance of single mother families who rely upon government benefits. The most recent Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey found that ‘24 per cent of children in single-parent households are living in poverty, compared with 7.6 per cent of those living with two parents’.
What was known before the Bill came into effect?
The deep and distressing impacts had a high degree of predictability. Experts with a long and reputable history in measuring and advocating against poverty and deprivation continued to find that single-parent families were always over represented and this occurred despite what measures, snap-shot or approach was used. Contemporary research conducted by ACOSS such as the Poverty Report[ii], Anglicare`s State of the Family Report[iii], research by NATSEM[iv] and or the work undertaken by the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC)[v] presented a consistent and bleak picture. In November 2012 The National Council of Single Mothers & their Children instituted an 1800 hot line called Tell it like it is. 103 calls were received in three weeks, women broke down when articulating what this means for their family. They felt stranded, overwhelmed, that they had failed as mothers, and felt betrayed by a system that had been a corner stone for the past four decades. They spoke about their incapacity to quarantine their children from the harsh and lived reality of poverty. NCSMC received recurring reports of utilities cut-offs, housing evictions, abandoned studies and going without food and medication. Services that were once identified as ‘standard’ now fell onto the luxury and unaffordable side of the ledger; such as maintaining a workable family car, accessing preventative health treatment, children playing sport and having access to the internet.
In the lead up to the changes the following was known:
The Government predicted a savings of up to $720 million over four years;
The changes overwhelmingly hit single mother families who are already faring poorly;
Over four years 147,000 families will be affected;
Families battling the cost of living on $321 on Parenting Payment Single (PPS) will have a minimum loss of $60 per week. Newstart is $279 per week and sits at 77% below the poverty line;
The majority of single parent families (2/3rds) who supplemented their income with part-time or casual work will endure even greater losses due to very low amount that can be retained before the Newstart payment is reduced. For example a mother on PPS with three children could earn and retain $122 per week. On Newstart it dramatically reduces to $31 per week; the equivalent of two hours of work at the minimum wage. At the 2013 Budget the Government announced an increase to $50 per weekeffective March 2014 (subject to the passage of legislation). This is still an inadequate amount and languishes behind the parenting payment.
The Pension Education Supplement (PES) is not available on Newstart. This equates to $62 per fortnight (part-time study) to assist with the cost of education. There were some transferring provision but with strict rules. For example a mother who was studying a Cert 3 could retain the PES when transferred to Newstart, but only until the current course was completed. She could not go onto further studies. The educational stepping stones were removed. After much advocacy the Government announced in the 2013 budget that PES will be extended to Newstart effective January 2014 (subject to the passage of legislation). The PES is welcomed but studying on the lower Newstart allowance, for many, will remain an unaffordable goal.
The Government itself has publically stated concerns with the Senate Committee stating reservations that the cuts would help sole parents into paid work, and also dismissed the argument that placing all sole parents on the lowest payments was “fair”. The Committee recommended that the Senate defer consideration of the bill until the Committee completes its review into Newstart (this recommendation was ignored)[vi].
The Joint Parliamentary Human Rights Committee found that legislation before Parliament to cut the incomes of single parent families could “deprive” single parent families and their children “of minimum essential levels of social security” and has also recommended deferral of this legislation (this recommendation was ignored)[vii].
The United Nations wrote to the Australian Government dated October 2012 asking for a response. The detailed correspondence included 9 questions. At the time of writing this document the Australian Government is still to respond[viii].
Domestic Violence was silent in this discussion and the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and Children was absent.
Analysis of the families impacted on 1 Jan 2013.
Welfare Rights completed an analysis upon the 72,000 impacted families and below is a snap shot of their findings:
Employment: Three out of every five single parents who have been moved off the higher Parenting Payment onto the lower-paying Newstart Allowance are already working.
Additional Barriers to work: One in ten parents is caring for a child or adult with a significant disability, and a similar number of parents are experiencing major barriers to employment and had a ‘vulnerability’ indicator through Centrelink. Reasons for a ‘vulnerability’ indicator include mental health problems, injuries or homelessness.
Study: Recipients of the parenting payment single were the largest social security claimants who were undertaking study. The pension education supplement which is designed to assist with study is not available on Newstart and women undertaking study in 2013 may now become lost to further education.
Indigenous: Six and a half per cent of parents affected by the policy were Indigenous, and the payments cuts will exacerbate other problems, such as violence and lack of services, that weigh heavily on remote Indigenous communities.
Housing: Parents who are losing between $60 and $110 a week are anxious about how they will be able to afford to maintain their existing accommodation. Around 32,000 parents whose incomes will be cut are living in the private rental market, with 49 per cent receiving Rent Assistance. Around 15,000 (23 per cent) single parents are either paying a mortgage or own their own homes. A further 15 per cent are living in public housing.
Further impacts: A disturbing 22 per cent of working single parents, 8,834 in total, has lost eligibility for any income support payment, under the stricter Newstart Allowance income test. These parents would also lose access to the highly valued Pensioner Concession Card (PCC), which can be worth about $30 per week. Access to the PCC was factored into the consideration before women entered into mortgage repayments or private rental contracts; it is also a safety net for the families that cycle in and out of contract, seasonal or insecure work.
Reading the Terrain ongoing work:
A small bright spot which has emerge from this gloomy and distressing landscape has been the illuminating of poverty within single mother families and poverty more broadly, its far reaching and life altering impacts. It has been noted by some of us, who have been telling this story for some time, that the media and the community are more informed, empathetic, and engaged about this matter. This change was noted and captured by Adel Horin; Public sympathy grows for single parents’ plight[ix].
The chorus of concern continues to grow and new research and diverse advocacy continues to keep the issue alive. Most recently, it was the Salvation Army’s report; Its not asking too much[x], the media report was empathetic which was noted by Paul Bongiorno as he hosted a recent Treasure’s Post-Budget Lunch (23 May 2013). Other examples of public action have included national protests, email blitzs and as well as individual action such as the Billboard in Melbourne (see below).
The Federal Election should not ignore the growing calls to address this matter and that poverty should not be a forgone conclusion for a single parent family.
|To increase Newstart.NCSMC has called for an increase of $60 per week (the same level as the Parenting Payment)Many others including an alliance formed by ACOSS, ACTU and the BCA have called for a $50 per week.||This call is one that unites many, has good traction and it is easy to understand.Newstart is woefully inadequate at $279 per week and is stuck at 77% below the poverty line.|
|Increase the $ that parents can earn and retain to the equivalent of the PPS.||The Government`s announced increase (subject to legislation) will be welcomed but it is inadequate. $50 per week has it languishing well behind the Parenting Payment. See point 5.|
|Implement fair indexation for Newstart by using the same formula as used for pensions so any gain made wont be eroded over time.||The large faith based community services are campaigning on this as is ACOSS. The Catholic Services has called for an independent body to set pensions / allowances. A progressive and reasonable call.|
|Support a National Focus and strategy to eliminate Child Poverty in Australia.||Lets put this back on the National Agenda.|