“I should be able to provide that”: How Welfare-to-Work Affects Low-Income Single Mothers’ Food Provision

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With the recent release of the jobactive inquiry report and the current inquiry into ParentsNext, today’s policy analysis could not be more timely. Natalie Jovanovski provides a summary[i] of research she conducted with Policy Whisperer Kay Cook into how current Welfare to Work policies inform single mothers’ food provisioning practices, and the consequent impacts on mental and physical health for both the mothers and their children.


Australian single mothers on welfare are struggling to provide food for their children due to their low incomes. Many find food provision decreases both physical and mental health, particularly when they are transferred onto Newstart Allowance, since sourcing affordable food was psychologically taxing and restricted budgets decreased nutritionally healthy meals. Government policies are out of step with women’s everyday care responsibilities and disregard the health consequences of devaluing food provision.

Single mothers and food provisioning

Kay Cook and I interviewed 20 single mothers receiving either Parenting Payment Single, Newstart Allowance, or the Disability Support Pension. Through this, we explored how the Australian government’s welfare-to-work program shapes single mothers’ food provisioning practices in relation to their own and their children’s nutritional health. To our knowledge, there is no other research that uses food provisioning as a way to investigate how single-parent poverty can lead to ill health.

Food provisioning includes meal planning, buying and preparing food and considering what is ‘healthy’. It is a form of gendered care work and an important way to understand how women manage the health of their families. Food insufficiency is one of the biggest risk factors to health faced by single mothers, and single mothers often sacrifice their own nutritional health to feed their children (see also here and here). Despite this sacrifice, children from single-parent households are at risk of experiencing diet-related disruptions such as stunted growth. Since the implementation of welfare-to-work, Australian researchers have identified adverse health-related consequences to single parents and their children, including some in relation to food insecurity.

We interviewed single mothers about their experiences with food provisioning, healthy eating practices and the welfare system. They faced many conflicts balancing the expectations of the welfare system with the need to feed their children well. Those receiving Newstart, which keeps recipients below the poverty line, were affected the worst, because of the reduction in payment compared to Parenting Payment Single. This change is mandated when the youngest child turns 8 years old. Women found ways to prioritise food provisioning, but these strategies often compromised their physical and psychological wellbeing.

Time and income constraints

For the women on Newstart, the time needed for mandatory job-searching affected their meal planning and preparation. Those who had found employment also reported struggling to balance their work life with the time needed for food provision. Many women expressed frustration at the government’s inconsistent messages, which encouraged them to conform to nutritional guidelines yet decreased their income and food provisioning time by transferring them from Parenting Payment Single to Newstart.

Women used the following strategies to overcome their time and income constraints:

  • Cooking in bulk once a week/fortnight and filling the freezer with meals

  • Relying on simple meals such as toasted sandwiches

  • Going to charities and food banks

  • Spending extra time looking for food on sale

  • Buying fresh food in bulk at farmer’s markets and co-ops

  • Some even rummaged in dumpsters at times.

Many women spoke of the depressing and time-consuming nature of these strategies, but felt they had no alternatives given their financial situation and concern for their children’s health. Matilda, a mother of three, said food provisioning became an obsessive part of her life after being transferred onto Newstart:

“…it’s a huge amount of time in the thinking about the food, the preparing of it, and always just going in with – to shop with the intention to buy as little as possible…. You have to come up with the ideas, you have to make sure that it’s nutritional enough, and that there’s enough of it…. The whole burden of responsibility is entirely on me.”

Such stress led to reduced mental health for many of the mothers who spoke with us.

When bananas are a luxury item: Current welfare policies are forcing mothers to compromise on their own and their children’s nutritional intake, due to a combination of inadequate payments and compliance requirements which make them time-poor.  Photo credit Pexels .

When bananas are a luxury item: Current welfare policies are forcing mothers to compromise on their own and their children’s nutritional intake, due to a combination of inadequate payments and compliance requirements which make them time-poor. Photo credit Pexels.

Health effects

Women often prioritised their children’s health at the expense of their own, through skipping meals, eating their children’s leftovers or eating small snacks instead of meals. They also reported the difficulty of trying to balance their limited income with cultural expectations of ‘healthy eating’. Samantha, a mother of one on Parenting Payment Single, said:

“Trying to balance… everyone eating healthy and money seems impossible sometimes.”

Meanwhile Melissa, a mother of four on Newstart, expressed that it was difficult to provide her children even with basics like fresh fruit:

“He’s asking for a banana. I should be able to provide that.”

Furthermore, while women prioritised healthy diets for their children, this did not always prevent health problems from occurring.  Diana, a mother of two, said,

“One of my children got quite sick, and it turned out she was iron deficient… because we weren’t eating enough red meat. ‘Cause, you know, $27 a kilo, who can afford that?... On Newstart, that is.”

Welfare policies have significant detrimental health consequences for single mothers and their children

Despite single mothers employing individual coping strategies and diligently managing their income and time constraints, their health and wellbeing – and their children’s – are suffering as a result of the Australian welfare system. Our research has made visible the role that food provisioning plays in the management of women and children’s health, and we emphasise the importance of using our findings to critique Welfare to Work policies. In particular, the de-valuing of single mothers’ parenting responsibilities and the attempts to ‘motivate’ them into paid employment by purposefully keeping their income support payments low[ii] is placing single mothers in a bind. Future research must continue to look at the detrimental health effects of such policies. For low-income single mothers trying to juggle care with the employment responsibilities enforced by the state, the consequences are physically and psychologically damaging.


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 and follow us on Twitter @PolicyforWomen


[i] With thanks to Zoë Goodall (Swinburne University of Technology) for adapting the paper into this shortened format.

[ii] See this statement by the National Commission of Audit which reads in part, “[Newstart is] designed to be temporary and is less generous than pensions… The rate of unemployment benefit attempts to balance adequacy of support for people who are unemployed with the incentive for them to seek work and the cost to the commonwealth.”