Single mothers fight back against poverty

The Council of Single Mothers and their Children’s (CSMC) Action Group will stage a rally at 11 am on Thursday May 6 in Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall to highlight single-mother poverty during the Mother’s Day shopping madness. With the demand “End our Poverty for Mother’s Day”, the Action Group is urging members and supporters to “meet by the big (empty!) purse” sculpture and “dress in style” for the theme “Mothers Day Breakfast in Bed”.

The welfare-to-work legislation and changes to the child support payment formula, introduced by the Howard Coalition government in 2006 and retained by the Rudd Labor government, have plunged many single-mother families into dire poverty. The CSMC, which has over 2000 members and is funded by the Victorian state government’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, has experienced a massive increase in demand for food vouchers, shelter and assistance with back to school fees since the implementation of these changes.

One in five children under 15 are in sole-parent households, 80% of which are headed by mothers separated from their former male partners. The Australian Council of Social Service describes single mothers and their children as “our poorest families”. Single mothers and their children are now the largest single group of homeless people in Australia. Indigenous single mothers in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory additionally face racist “welfare quarantining” rules where half their benefits are provided as cards that can only be spent on food and clothing, and only at major retailers such as Coles. The CSMC has pledged its support to these Indigenous single mothers and will vigorously oppose any attempted extension of “welfare quarantining” across the nation, as is planned by the Rudd government.

Under the welfare-to-work legislation, mothers who separated from their male partners after July 2006 are put on Newstart Allowance rather than Parenting Payment Single (PPS). New applicants for the single parenting payment were required to look for work once their youngest child turned six and were put on Newstart when the child turned eight. Previously sole parents could stay on the PPS until their youngest child was 16. Newstart is about $50 less a week than the PPS, with a lower earning threshold before benefits start being reduced.

Single mothers on both Newstart and PPS are classed as “job seekers with a part-time work requirement”. Single mothers with part-time jobs who once qualified for a partial parenting payment are no longer eligible for any income support under the tighter Newstart income test. Single mothers are forced to either work or search for work 52 weeks of the year, even if they satisfy Centrelink work requirements. There are no aftercare or holiday programs for secondary school-aged children, which means that children as young as 11 are left uncared for while their mothers are pressured by Centerlink in paid work, under threat of losing their benefits. It is illegal for a single mother, without a permanent job that pays annual leave, to take a holiday unless she is granted “an exemption from work search requirements”.

New child support rules reduce the amount of money single mothers receive from their children’s fathers if the children spend increased time with the fathers. This has led to a rash of vindictive court cases where disinterested and even violent fathers vie for increased contact with their children to reduce their child support bills, even if they don’t contribute money to child-rearing expenses.

Worse still, the court process now favours granting increased access to fathers, through regarding the safety of the child, and the right of the child to spend time with both parents, as equally paramount. Thus Family Court mediators and psychologists often pressure single mothers to grant more access to fathers rather than making the child’s safety absolutely paramount. There are now penalties for mothers who cannot prove allegations of violence committed against them by their former male partners. Government reports indicate that this system has left more children at risk.

All of these legislative “reforms” have increased the amount of litigation and Centrelink harassment newly separated single mothers face, placed their children at greater risk of abuse and drastically lowered the living standards of single mothers and their children. Welfare-to-work legislation treats single mothers as a reserve army of labour, forcing them to take up menial jobs during “boom” times or forcing them into piecemeal “retraining” programs during recessions. Through classifying single mothers as “job seekers”, the nexus between single-mother benefits and pension status has been all but broken, hence the Rudd government’s decision to exclude any increase in the PPS as part of its 2009-10 federal budget’s increase in all other pensions.

[Helen Said is the “End our Poverty for Mothers Day” rally organiser.]