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


While planning their own Mothers’ Day celebrations in lieu of the absent fathers, Emily Wolfinger (@Ewolfi10) and Juanita McLaren (@defrostedlady) of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand reflect on the devaluing of caring work in social policy and its implications for women parenting alone.

Honouring motherhood – ? The reality

Classic images of mothers feature the soft glow of a kitchen window, shining hair and pride in having just produced some kind of wonderful in the oven. Family members look on, smiling in the knowledge that they will get to enjoy the food while the gravy stains, dishes and crumbs are taken care of, as if by magic.  

These cosy images gloss over the reality of the economic situation of women, and mothers in particular. Women are overrepresented among the poor. The picture is bleaker when we compare sub-groups of women, where we see that single mother households are the poorest household type by relationship and gender, regardless of how poverty is measured. Separation and divorce render visible the tenuousness of women’s economic status, which is intrinsically linked to their greater share of unpaid caring and domestic work. More than a third of single mothers live in poverty, compared to 13.3% of the Australian population. This means that children in lone families are three times more likely to be living in poverty than their counterparts in couple families, with a poverty rate of 40.6% compared to 12.5%.

The impact of caregiving on women’s economic position is sometimes underrated in debates about the gender pay gap.  However, women engage in higher levels of unpaid work, and it must therefore be considered when examining women’s earnings.

Happy Mother's Day...? The Government's 'bouquet' to single mothers doesn't communicate any appreciation for their role.  Photo credit: artist Ursus Wehrli . 

Happy Mother's Day...? The Government's 'bouquet' to single mothers doesn't communicate any appreciation for their role. Photo credit: artist Ursus Wehrli

According to the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the gender pay gap is nearly 40 per cent for women in the ‘prime childrearing years’ between the ages of 35-44, if part-time work, bonuses and overtime are taken into account, compared to 30 per cent for all women.  This is a form of disadvantage, referred to as the motherhood or child penalty, and is not improving over time.  The impact of years out of the paid workforce usually due to the birth of a child has more than doubled since 2007, suggesting workplaces have become more hostile places for mothers. All of this has long-term consequences for women’s financial security, with impacts on their income and assets in retirement.

Unpaid work and mothers

Caring work is not measured as part of the national accounts system – it is considered economically unproductive and is consequently invisible.  This is despite its enormous contribution to the Australian economy – estimated at $345 billion.  The reality is that “the whole market economy would grind to a halt” if it were not for unpaid caring work – work which facilitates the paid employment of family members, including spouses and adult children, but is so often unrecognised.

Economics aside, is unpaid caring work not vital to human existence, enabling cohesion in homes and communities?  These are not made-up jobs that are purely in the marketplace to generate more money for the economy. It seems absurd that these time-consuming roles, which are not only important but essential, are so undervalued and overlooked by those who enjoy the benefits.

The devaluing of care work, still predominantly undertaken by women, underlies the economic situation of mothers. It also underscores their marginalisation within the workplace.   There is a bidirectional relationship between unpaid caring work and low paid care work. For example, pay rates for child care and aged care work reflect the low value accorded to this work when it is done in the home. The low value of paid care work in turn reinforces the low value of unpaid care work.    The attitude that care work is not skilled work or ‘real’ work - as recently implied by Senator David Leyonhjelm who said that child care work was “wiping noses” – further diminishes its value as both paid and unpaid work. 

Single mothers have it hardest; the government ensures this is so

While coupled mothers may be able to rely on partners’ employment for adequate household income while they care for children, single mothers reliant on social security payments are ‘incentivised’ and ‘encouraged’ to find work under the Welfare to Work regime once their youngest child reaches eight years of age.  

The Parenting Payment Single (PPS) – itself too low to provide an adequate standard of living – is no longer available to single parents once their youngest child turns (the arbitrary age of) eight years old. This is despite the fact that older children still require a significant amount of care. Ten- to 12-year-olds, for example, receive 36 hours of care a week from parents - the equivalent of a full-time job. If supported by a working partner, mothers have more options for employment breaks; further study; and/or taking part-time, flexible or lower-paid positions that are conducive to caring responsibilities. However, for a single mother, every hour she spends on unpaid caring directly impacts on her earning capacity and therefore her ability to pay for someone else to do her role.  Single mothers who are reliant on income support have to weigh up how much to invest in their economic security versus caring for children, all the while ‘incentivised’ by welfare policy to work through conditional  and mandatory income support models whose payments fall below the poverty line.

Rather than tinkering with an economic system that is designed by and for men, so that mothers can readily access paid employment, governments force single mothers to find work by moving them onto the lower-paying Newstart Allowance, thus transferring responsibility for economic wellbeing further onto the individual.  Add to this the mandatory participation and compliance requirements, such as compulsory training for irrelevant jobs or CV writing workshops for people who previously had successful careers, and we can see that there is no consideration of the life complexities of single parents. With 82 per cent of these households being headed by women (with 95 per cent of those accessing PPS being women),  this is arguably a case of  sex discrimination as well as an indication that unpaid caring work has no value in the eyes of policy makers.

As a consequence of welfare cuts, single parent poverty and child poverty are rising.  Single mothers looking for paid work are often doing so within the confines of limitations such as inflexible working times and lack of affordable child care.  Without workplace flexibility, single parents can struggle to maintain employment as the theoretical time available to them to manage a home, children and job is 24 hours per day instead of the two-parent 48.  For many this means employment is limited to school hours and accepting work that is casualised or precarious

Real women in real circumstances

The hourly pay rate for low-skilled casualised work, and the inconsistent hours of such work, often equates to underemployment whereby shifts are available but simply not enough to add up to a liveable income. Such work can also impact on single mothers’ ability to plan financially for the future.  Our research indicates that value of paid work in such circumstances is questionable.    The undervaluing of single mothers’ unpaid work, and its invisibility within the welfare system, functions to devalue any paid work, negating the intent of the Welfare to Work policy.   

Single mothers face challenges to economic security beyond those involved in accessing and managing employment.  They may have to contend with unpaid child support and post-separation family violence.  These factors converge to impact on their capacity to make ends meet and create enormous financial and emotional strain.  However, these gendered realities are often ignored by a welfare system that prioritises paid employment and devalues caring work.  

Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand is currently conducting research into single mothers on Welfare to Work and the effects this policy has on their personal agency and financial security. A standout finding in the interviews conducted with single mothers to date is the lack of understanding on the part of Job Network Providers of the impact of structural and systemic factors –and gendered social and family attitudes – on single mothers’ day-to-day lives.

One interviewee said that whilst she can gain access to as much shift work as she likes in a relatively well-paid role, most of her time is taken up with post-separation abuse from two ex-partners.  There is little time to complete the endless compliance activities and paperwork required as a condition of income support and child support.  The greatest impact, however, is on her mental health. The anticipatory anxiety in relation to not knowing what hoop she will have to jump through next in order to bridge the financial gap. She says that “Centrelink needs to recognize the significant impact of post-separation abuse on your ability to work and function, but they don’t.  They brush it aside.”

Another research participant has found her main struggle is reconciling irregular and precarious contract roles with her child care requirements.  Though well-educated and in a normally well-paid role within the health care sector, the shift work and late-night requirements often mean that there is no paid care available to enable her to work.  Meanwhile, the Job Network Providers have insisted that she complete a CV writing workshop despite her professional credentials and past experience.

Even when women manage to engage substantially in paid work, the demanding mix of child care costs and compliance activities leave them in a precarious position. Despite working up to 54 hours a fortnight, a participant we will call Jess* stays registered for PPS to supplement her shorter pay weeks or when she has to take time off due to illness. Despite the Child Care benefit and rebates, she still pays up to $200 a fortnight for less than three hours of after school care, and in the holidays that amount soars to around $600 a fortnight as she does not have family close by who can help look after her son while she is working. On top of this, Jess still needs to take time off her paid job once a month to attend meetings at her Job Network Provider. Recently she had to access her superannuation because she was under so much financial strain from incidentals, and yet she has to, like so many others, tick boxes in order to receive income support that places her below the poverty line. 

The invisibility of caring work and single parent stigma

These case studies take place against a backdrop of negative cultural narratives about single motherhood, potentially increasing the harm of the Welfare to Work policy. Other research shows that there is a correlation between the gendered invisibility of caring work and the stigmatisation of single mothers as ‘welfare burdens’. Narratives of single mothers as economic ‘burdens’ and ‘deficit’ mothers provide the justification for state monopolisation of their time, surveillance, welfare cuts and other punitive measures.  As a marginalised minority group, single mothers on their own are unable to effectively challenge negative discourses and the harmful effects of social policy.

It is commonly claimed or implied in political, media and popular discourse that the poverty experienced by single mothers is due to individual pathology (such as laziness or dishonesty). On the contrary, it is the devaluing of caring work, the privileging of paid employment, and the subsequent lack of economic and social support that leave single mothers in an exhaustive cycle of running a home without enough hands and managing a budget without enough money.   

It is not only the government that has a role in supporting single mothers to manage paid work and care; as with coupled mothers, employers must also do more to dismantle barriers to employment for people with caring responsibilities. But it is up to the state to provide an adequate financial safety net for women and children, and to create conditions which enable, rather than prevent, single mothers from participating in the formal economy while also doing the essential work of care. Civil society also has a role to call into question punitive welfare policy and to challenge the dominant narratives that punish and vilify a minority group of mothers while valorising the majority.

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.