Ten years ago I was a single parent (my oldest daughter was 8 then) and we lived well; she had after school hobbies, we ate fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as all the essentials: pasta, rice, cheese, meat, bread and eggs. We had nice, if not expensive, clothes and I managed, just, to pay for petrol and car maintenance for the relatively long commutes to my Melbourne job 2 days per week. I was also studying full-time. We lived in a beautiful two bedroom rented house with a lovely large backyard (the compromise here was that there was almost no heating). My daughter had a cat, chooks and a rabbit. I paid my bills, mostly on time.
Although I would have liked to eat organic produce, and drive a decent car (both were far more expensive than I could afford), I always thought our steady supply of avocados was a sign of prosperity; indeed of my ability to live well even as a single mother.
Why am I telling you this? Not because our activities or diet were particularly interesting or unusual; I'm telling you simply because they were possible. As a single mother of one I could afford a reasonable standard of living. I could support myself and my child properly, if frugally.
This was possible because I received the single parent pension (including family tax benefit), worked part-time, and got a small but regular contribution from my daughter's father. I lived in the country (Daylesford), which reduced my living expenses. I had supportive family and a community of friends with whom I shared care.
This combination of work, study and care might sound rather ordinary - and it was a decade ago - however under changes to Australian welfare legislation passed in October 2012 and brought into effect on January 1st, 2013 this basic but functional lifestyle will be out of reach for most single parents of 8 year olds.
Under the new "Fair Incentives to Work" legislation all recipients of Parenting Payment Single (PPS) whose children have turned 8 have been moved to the basic unemployment benefit "Newstart",more commonly known as "the dole". This has affected around 100,000 sole parents, almost all of whom are women. In real terms it means a loss of between $60 to $110 per week for families who are already under the poverty line.
Ostensibly this legislation is about moving the "chronically unemployed" into work to facilitate social integration and financial autonomy – both laudable goals; however, given the chronic lack of "family friendly" (read: mother friendly) jobs available and the stringent conditions under which recipients are able to earn money (any earnings beyond $31 a week are taxed at 40 cents in the dollar!) this is not going to bring about economic independence or social inclusion. On the contrary, severe stress, mental health problems and social isolation are the concomitants of poverty, perhaps especially working poverty.
As many commentators have noted, Newstart is a woefully inadequate payment that has not risen in real terms in twenty years. Even the business council have pointed out that being on Newstart may be prohibitive for getting a job. "Trying to survive on $35 a day is likely to erode the capacity of individuals to present themselves well or maintain their readiness for work." In reality, this legislation is about saving the government $700 million at the expense of the most economically vulnerable group of women and children. It is chasing surplus at the expense of welfare.
For many mothers this financial devolution is bringing about debilitating and demoralising change. As the Australian Council of Social Services website states: "Moving house, giving up the family car, cancelling children's sport, relinquishing the family pet, skipping meals and not filling medication scripts are some of the harsh outcomes" of the new legislation. On the "Parenting Payment for parents - NOT Newstart" facebook page the testimonies are heart-wrenching.
Women balancing very low incomes, complex and often contradictory time demands, employer prejudices, irresponsible, abusive and absent ex-partners, sole responsibility for child care, and inflexible work schedules are wondering – quite rightly! - how they will cope. As one mother put it,
I too am much worse off now that reality has really kicked in ... this is my 3rd payment that is $200 less than before and it is really biting now! Had an anxiety attack in the supermarket when [I] was $20 over budget (which was only $50 for the week anyway), crying at the drop of a hat, not sleeping well and only paying half my rent.
Petra Bueskens is a psychotherapist in private practice. She was a lecturer in Sociology and Gender Studies at The University of Melbourne and Deakin University between 2002-09. She is the editor of the forthcoming text, Mothering and Psychoanalysis: Feminist, Sociological and Clinical Perspectives (Demeter Press).