On census night in 2016, there were about 959,000 single-parent families in Australia, 82% of which were single mothers. The majority of single parents with children under four years old are not in paid work. Instead, they are three times more likely to be living below the poverty line. Their median income of $974 a week is about half that of all households. All up, about one-third of sole parents and their children live in poverty, according to the Australian Council of Social Service.
Most observers point to the Howard government’s decision during the mining boom to move those with children eight and older off parenting payment (now $384.25 a week) and onto Newstart ($297.55 a week) as the starting point to a new, more punitive approach to welfare payments for single parents.
“I think that is so dark in terms of the financial context we were in,” says Terese Edwards, the chief executive of the National Council For Single Mothers and their Children. “Everyone was getting a pat on the back, a hand up … Except if you were a single mother. And then, bang, you became officially unemployed.”
Exacerbating the situation, Edwards says, is Australia’s $1.5bn child support debt, the cost of child care and the fact that governments are focused on a “deficit model” that blames parents for their predicament.
Once the child turns six, parents face the same job search requirements as everyone else. The problem, McLaren says, is that well-paid jobs with child-friendly hours are “very thin on the ground”. “That means you are having to sign up to casual work,” says McLaren, who has studied Australia’s ‘Welfare to Work’ policies. “They give you lots of flexibility to be with your kids, but you don’t get sick leave and holiday pay and all those kinds of allowances. That’s the exchange.”