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

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In another insightful post for the Women's Policy Action Tank, Juanita McLaren (@defrostedlady) of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand examines the patterns of welfare dependency by women and suggests that the Welfare to Work policy could be more effective if, rather than punishing single mothers, it supported them based on normal arcs of parenting and employment. You can hear Juanita speak on her experiences at our upcoming Women’s Policy Forum, held in Melbourne on 22 September 2017. You can follow the Action Tank @PolicyforWomen for regular policy analysis using a gender lens, and for live tweeting at our upcoming Forum.

I’m six years into single parenthood and things are just starting to come back together.  In short I’ve gone from being a full-time working married woman with stay-at-home husband to single mother of three primary school aged boys, to part-time fundraising consultancy and mother to said boys, to unemployed master’s student and volunteer (the mother bit is still there too), and now back to part-time contract worker on a mission to advocate for single mothers.

In that time I have negotiated learning to be a single parent while also trying to keep the family fed, while redirecting my life to ensure flexibility for child-rearing (which meant quitting full-time employment), meanwhile laying foundations for long-term financial security; essentially, rebuilding.

Conditional welfare creates barriers to recovery for single mothers and their children.  Sculpture by Brad Spencer , "Life is an Open Book," Charlotte, NC. 

Conditional welfare creates barriers to recovery for single mothers and their children. Sculpture by Brad Spencer, "Life is an Open Book," Charlotte, NC. 

This behaviour, while guided by me and my personal agency, isn’t unusual.  In fact, there are many statistics available that show that this is a common journey of rebuilding after separation for many women. Cutting back on work, studying, and creating a strategy to regain financial stability are the norm for single mothers. The process is even longer than the one I have been through if you add more complexities, like escaping domestic violence, having a disability, or lacking an established employment record, for example.

How Welfare to Work made that harder

A part of my process of rebuilding included a time where I looked to Welfare to Work for help.  I wanted help making a transition from a two-parent family to a one-parent family where the money and time needed to raise kids can only be drawn from one person. Whatever I’m doing in one area directly reduces how much I can do in the other.

Australia’s Welfare to Work policy is designed to compensate for our aging population by encouraging groups like single mothers or those with disabilities to participate in paid employment to reconcile the gap in the workforce. When my youngest turned six I was required to work a minimum of 15 hours a week or participate in approved studies or voluntary work in order to receive the Parenting Payment Single. I looked for work for six months or so, struggling with finding roles that would suit my level of experience and interest whilst allowing me to be available to the daily needs of the kids, as well as allow for incidentals like illness or pupil free days and the like.

Like many women, study seemed to check all the boxes for meeting my goals at this time. I’d be participating, engaging in professional development that would set me up for future career paths, and would have relative flexibility to study around the children’s schedules and needs. Sure, I could have taken on a job with hours between 9.30am - 3pm, but most of those were retail or hospitality roles which would not ensure long term financial security, were insecure in themselves, and the amount I would have taken home each week did not seem worth it when I could pursue a role with higher pay that would work for the family as my kids got older.

Centrelink recommended I stay on the parenting payment instead of Austudy as it would work out to be around $50 - $80 per week more, so I needed to go through the process of monthly meetings and job searches, as well as making up extra hours with voluntary work, in order to meet the compliance requirements set out by my Job Network provider.  It was quickly established that they would probably not be able to assist with finding me an actual job due to my (high-level, career-oriented) experience not matching their (low-skill, precarious) job leads and contacts, so the process was reduced to a box-ticking exercise that ate into my weeks, not to mention my self-esteem.

Patterns of welfare reliance

Statistics from the 2017 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey show that while about 58% of women rely on some form of welfare for up to four years continuously, welfare reliance drops to 13.4 % for extended periods of 4 - 6 years on continuous income support during what is predominantly the child-rearing years.  For single mothers, these few years require extra financial support due to the nature of raising children with the independent responsibility for finances and parenting. The amount of welfare reliance of women drops away 9.2% from 7 years to 9 years. (See below)

Welfare reliance women 0917.png

According to the Melbourne Institute’s review of the 2017 HILDA Survey, “the relatively high level of reliance among the female 25 to 34 age group is likely to be related to child-rearing and in particular [the] single-parent welfare receipt.” (Wilkins, R, 2017, p 41)

So while this data includes all women, it still reveals that there is an overall drop of around 45% in continuous income support requirements after a 4-year period.  This indicates that while 84% of single parent households in Australia are run by women, these single mothers are going back to work or are otherwise reducing their need for public financial assistance of their own volition.

Data represents real lives

Earlier this year I conducted research on the impact of the Welfare to Work program on the personal agency and financial security of six single mothers.  Like me, they all had a plan to achieve future financial longevity, but their children were the priority, particularly in the primary school years where they had not yet reached a level of independence from their mothers that allows for increased time to commit to employment. Four of the six women were all participating in higher education studies to prepare themselves for further financial security in upskilling and found that studying provided them with the flexibility they needed while their kids were still young.

Also like me, these women were all working diligently toward long-term goals whilst grappling with the short-term realities of living below the poverty line. On top of this they also had to meet Job Network compliance requirements, often spending five - ten hours a week ensuring compliance by applying for positions that did not contribute to long-term goals and would do little to improve their financial situation due to the hidden costs of working flexible, child-friendly hours. None of these women were offered any jobs, and none of their job network providers were able to offer any assistance with their long term plans, but rather pushed for a short-term, unsustainable Band-Aid solution, such as cash-in-hand work or volunteering to cut up vegetables at a not-for-profit food co-op. One has to wonder how much these “employment assistance” schemes are costing the government when they don’t appear to be effective for many people.  

Was I incentivised by the system to go back to work?  In a way I was, due to the unsustainable income support and the fact that once my youngest turned eight I would need to move from the Single Parenting Payment to the Newstart Allowance - a drop of about $100 per fortnight. (While their independence is growing, my boys are costing more with every inch they grow – in food, clothes and education expenses.) Luckily my university allowed me to complete my research placement before I had completed the prerequisite subjects; I was able to use that experience to get a job which scraped in pretty much the week my youngest celebrated his 8th birthday. I still have three subjects remaining to complete my masters, but luckily the organisation I am working with, although on a contract basis, is giving me the practical experience that the master’s is setting me up for. I can afford to delay completing my studies while I receive hands-on experience.

At the end of the day, though, the statistics describe an arc which reflects the natural process of grieving, adjustment, rebuilding, and long-term planning.  Why couldn’t the Welfare to Work system simply acknowledge and follow these processes in their policy and procedures? It would be refreshing to feel that the government were supporting single mothers’ need to re-position themselves in a way that leads to financial stability while also being there to nurture their children. Instead, the government spend their time and money monitoring our movements and trying to push us into a workforce that entrenches poverty and by no means assists the needs of the most important people here - the children.