Do the Hustle: How I make ends meet as a single parent

Action+Tank+blog+post+header.png

The Coalition’s stance on income support is “the best form of welfare is a job.” For many people on The Newstart Allowance, however, one job doesn’t cut it. In today’s analysis, the insightful Juanita McLaren (@defrostedlady) takes us through her tax return to demonstrate how Welfare to Work policies incentivise decisions around employment, education, income support and debt for single mothers.

Tax time is approaching and funnily enough it’s one of my favourite times of the year.  I have always been a fan of spreadsheets and data and numbers.  And from the outcome of the recent Federal election, it appears that a whole lot of people in this country are particularly interested in tax too.

In the years when I am an employee, tax time is just about handing over a group certificate – which can be a bit dull for number dorks like me.  They are also the good years though, as that group certificate means that I’ve had the security of sick leave, annual leave, carer’s leave, superannuation and knowing that I will generally be able to pay the bills. I had one of those in the 2017/2018 financial year.  It was a three day a week job, allowing me to studying part time. I knew that when my three kids were on holidays or when someone was home sick it didn’t mean losing a day of pay.

This financial year however has given me lots of numbers to play with while I prepare to send off my money matters to the accountant. 

I have had six employers this year. SIX! I was employed all year – not unemployed, but certainly underemployed, like 10.7% of women in Australia at the moment. All in, I had to absorb about three months of non-paid work while waiting for contracts to go through or hours not being available. Figure 1 below provides a breakdown of how we got through the year.

Wheel of hustle J McLaren 0619.png

Following is a breakdown of what the jobs look like from an employee benefit perspective:

  • Employer 1: In this role I was a contractor with employee benefits like super

  • Employee 2: In this role I was a casual employee but with no benefits other than super

  • Employees 3, 4 and 5: These were three one-off gigs using my ABN – one was two days, one was for two hours and one was for four hours

  • Employee 6:  In this role (current) I am an independent contractor with no employee benefits, with the contract running until June 30, 2019.

Ideally, I want to work four days or full-time, but saying no to jobs that are handed to me is not an option when I am already living hand to mouth. Besides, they were all great jobs that were a good fit with my studies and experience, and all great organisations who simply weren’t in a financial position to give me a more secure position.

ALL of my employers this year approached me directly – not one was through a formal job application.  I am more than employable.  I am job ready, despite what Welfare to Work policies seem to think.

Something else that has made this year a busy one and required some hustle was a trip I made the UN Women’s Committee on the Status of Women conference in New York City.  For two years I had been working with the National Council for Single Mothers and their Children and a Human Rights lawyer on an individual complaint about the Australian Government’s policy on Parenting Payment Single, particularly surrounding the cut-off date for access being when your youngest child turns eight.

It was this policy that pushed me to drop out of my full-time study for a master’s degree one year short of completion, and this policy that means that I am still in doing the slog to study part-time while doing this precarious traveling circus of casualised employment.  It is this policy that means I need to take whatever job I can get as I try to complete my degree in order to, in some cases, literally double my earning capacity.  Every mentor I have spoken to, anyone in my chosen sector from whom I have asked advice on my career direction in the last twelve months, has said the same thing: “You really need to finish your master’s.”

Even though I pretty much had some form of employment for the whole year, I have also needed to apply for 20 jobs a month as part of my obligations to receive Newstart - the weeks that I wasn’t getting paid meant no income, and not having access to Parenting Payment Single now that my youngest has passed his eighth birthday means I am an unemployed worker in the eyes of the government.  Over the last six months, from December until May, I have applied for 120 jobs through my Newstart compliance requirements. I was put onto an online trial which is a zippy little program that means you don’t have to meet with a Job Active worker, but the 20 applications per month is not negotiable.  I have not been successful in any of these jobs, and I have received calls from only two. One of the calls was from a ‘boutique’ recruitment agency, to ask me to come in for a meeting at a ‘small fee’ (pay for an interview? No thanks.), the other was for a cleaning job I applied for to get my numbers up, but at that time I actually had enough work as well as a unit of university study.

You see, in my entire 30 years of working (my first job being at a fruit shop while at high school) I have only ever landed one advertised position. Don’t get me wrong, applying for 120 jobs and not getting any of them is pretty gutting, but I’m not surprised.  I’ve always been offered work based on relationships – from volunteering in my 20s to the work I do now which is accessible to anyone interested in the areas I research and write about, and I have never been averse to approaching anyone about anything.  As a fundraiser for 18 years, relationship building has always been intrinsically linked with my paid work. Right now though, studying, working part-time and having 100% care of my three children means I don’t have the time for that kind of job hunting. According to ACOSS, there are 8 unemployed people for every one job advertised in Australia. As Caroline Criado Perez points out in her book Invisible Women – Exposing Data Bias in a world Designed for Men, “..with the rise of  algorithm-driven recruiting the problem is set to get worse” (p 103).

Still smiling… “Don’t worry, Centrelink - we’re fine!”  Photo credit Barynya Russian folk dance troupe.

Still smiling… “Don’t worry, Centrelink - we’re fine!” Photo credit Barynya Russian folk dance troupe.

My rent this financial year was on average 41% of my income – if you saw the actual dollar amount you would gasp.  I am definitely in the rental stress category, defined as housing costs that exceed 30% of income. The weeks that I had to fully depend on income support and the Family Tax Benefit in the last financial year, however, saw 67% of my income support going to rent.  But (a) I can’t afford to move (bond, moving costs, setting up costs) and (b) I can’t put a price on living in the area I do where my kids know everyone and the social capital my hood affords me when I’m often doing erratic hours. And of course the news for affordable rentals just gets worse and worse.  In the street where I rented four years ago, same suburb I am in now, in houses the same size as the one I was in, the prices have literally doubled.  DOUBLED. I am hanging in there with the 2.5 bedroom apartment which is the cheapest accommodation available to the four of us in our area.

With our new old government I have some questions for our new Minister for Women, Jobs and Industrial Relations, Melissa Price, and for the Minister for Families and Social Services, Paul Fletcher. Do you think I’m doing enough?  Have you been in my situation and what decisions would you have made in my place? Would you have held out for a full-time job despite being a month late in rent payments or would you have gone for the ‘bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ and take whatever came up?

Would you have ditched the masters when you’re three units from finishing with the knowledge that you may never get back to it, but your time is freed up to take cleaning jobs? Or keep plugging away with the knowledge that when you do have that piece of paper you will qualify for around 40% more income than you have now?

From the stats above you can see I am work-ready, I am employable.  My output is solid, but unfortunately when I can’t get job security or affordable housing it’s not just me who suffers, but also my kids. I sincerely hope that our new government works to find a way to enable businesses to offer more security and longevity, stops invisibilising the caring roles of women, and in lieu of raising the age of access to Parenting Payment Single to when your youngest is 16, at least raise the rate of Newstart. I’m backing myself, but this is not sustainable. I love my spreadsheets and data and analysis, but even this data geek is finding her tax stats a little too depressing to digest.

 Juanita McLaren’s highly popular blogs for the Women’s Policy Action Tank chronicle her own and others experience of Welfare to Work policies. You can link to her previous pieces below.

The same old story: How Newstart fails single mothers at every turn

No roses (or support) for the ‘undeserving’: Deconstructing how Australian policy punishes single mums (Wolfinger & McLaren)

‘Citizen Joyce’, or the experiences of older single mothers in the welfare system (McLaren & Maury)

Single mothers and the abattoir: A short review of jobactive positions in Shepparton

Parents Vexed? ParentsNext is poorly designed to support mothers into work (McLaren & Maury)

Hitting a brick wall: How Welfare to Work could support single mothers (but doesn’t)

When volunteering isn’t valued: Welfare to Work and mutual obligation requirements

Single parent support and the feminisation of poverty

Weighing the cost of Welfare to Work implementation

Time to rethink the time policy in Welfare to Work

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.