Snakes and ladders: The experience of single mothers on Welfare to Work

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Single mother households are the most disadvantaged household type in Australia. The Welfare to Work policy is intended to help single mothers engage with employment, increase their self-reliance and improve their financial security. Today’s post summarises a new report by Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand that was launched at the ACOSS National Conference. Authored by Juanita McLaren (@defrostedlady), Susan Maury (@SusanMaury) and Sarah Squire (@SquireSarah), it is titled “Outside systems control my life”: The experiences of single mothers on Welfare to Work, and draws on in-depth interviews.

"I feel like it’s terribly unfair that my choices and options are taken away from me because I’ve become a single parent.  I haven’t become a criminal, I haven’t done anything wrong. I just became a single parent and suddenly all of my options have been take away and I’ve been made to feel like a burden." – ‘Billie’

Background

The Welfare to Work reforms were introduced in 2006 with the aim of increasing workforce participation and self-reliance among several groups of people on income support payments, including single parents in receipt of Parenting Payment Single. As a form of welfare conditionality – the linking of the right to social security with particular obligations such as job search activities – the policy currently requires single parents to undertake mutual obligation activities once their youngest child turns six. Single parents are moved onto the lower Newstart Allowance when their youngest child turns eight.

Since the majority of single parents are women (82 per cent), this research aimed to investigate whether the policy has achieved its stated objectives of improving workforce participation, self-reliance and financial security for single mothers. Additionally, we wanted to understand how the policy’s implementation is experienced at the street level by illuminating the day-to-day experiences that single mothers have with jobactive providers and Centrelink. Juanita McLaren – who has experienced Welfare to Work herself - conducted in-depth interviews with 26 single mothers from around Australia who have experience of the Welfare to Work policy.

Do you have what it takes to ‘win’? For the mothers in our study, even full-time, career-oriented employment was problematic and wasn’t enough to ensure their economic security.  See other game tiles here .

Do you have what it takes to ‘win’? For the mothers in our study, even full-time, career-oriented employment was problematic and wasn’t enough to ensure their economic security. See other game tiles here.

Key findings

Welfare to Work is not delivering on its aim of increasing participation in employment.

Twenty five of the women interviewed reported that jobactive providers had not assisted them in finding employment; only one participant reported receiving assistance to secure a short term role.

The Welfare to Work policy was assessed as not helpful, with research participants indicating that jobactive providers were exclusively focused on meeting their contractual obligations to government as opposed to providing them with individual, tailored assistance.

"Because we have a high level of education they say ‘you’ll be right, you’ll figure it out,’ and we do but we have to keep on reporting to them. The system, the person who is serving you knows it’s a ridiculous thing and they go ‘we just have to tick the boxes off.’” – ‘Heidi’

Welfare to Work is not delivering on its aim of supporting self-reliance.

Jobactive providers were unable to link women with employment that matched their experience and skills, nor were they able to support long term career goals and aspirations. Available jobs were limited to the providers’ existing contracts, such as those in manufacturing and hospitality.

For the most part, jobactive providers were unable or unwilling to assist with job searches, CV writing, networking or other activities that would build self-sufficiency and improve job prospects.

Two women with a desire to start a business said that jobactive providers did not have the knowledge to assist them, while another participant who had already started her own business was barred from having her work building up a client base considered as an approved activity.  

For those women already undertaking some employment, study or entrepreneurial activity, Welfare to Work inhibited their progress due to compliance requirements. Volunteer work was not recognised for one participant, while others had to leave work to attend compulsory meetings.

“I am always on the brink of being cut off because they keep changing their minds about whether I am meeting my obligations or not.”  - ‘Amanda’

Welfare to Work is not delivering on its aim of improving financial security and is instead increasing financial insecurity.

Nearly all participants reported having their payments cut due to negligence or poor communication between their jobactive provider and Centrelink, or due to inconsistent policy interpretation.

Some women go without eating, while others rely on food banks or family members to meet their essential costs. Only four out of the 26 women interviewed would be able to raise $2,000 in an emergency, from either borrowing from family or selling assets. Women live in fear of the day when their youngest child turns eight and they will be moved onto the lower Newstart payment.

“For me this whole program is a joke and a nightmare… [I just want to] find a way to… live even a little above the poverty line.”   - ‘Katie’

Welfare to Work does not take into account the reality of women’s lives, including their caring responsibilities and, for some, post-separation abuse.

Several participants reported that their caring responsibilities were not understood or valued by jobactive providers, particularly in relation to casual and contract work and the difficulty in reconciling these conditions with child care availability. The essential unpaid work of parenting is rendered invisible, while the system is unable to recognise complex individual circumstances. 

“It always feels as if there is not enough energy to sufficiently nourish both often competing parts of my life – the sole mother responsible for household, study, work, friends and personal life, while wrangling with trying to adequately be present and contributing to my child’s social and emotional wellbeing, his sports and education.” – ‘Georgia’

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“[My time is] monopolized by post-separation abuse and an abuser who constantly uses the legal system to abuse. Centrelink needs to recognize the significant impact of post-separation abuse on your ability to work and function, but they don’t. They view it as my problem to solve.” – ‘Lauren’

Face-to-face interactions with jobactive providers were experienced as stressful and undermining of self-worth.

Several participants reported hostile and aggressive interactions, including ‘microaggressions’, from providers, and an adherence to negative stereotypes about single mothers. Women reported having been yelled at, and in one case sexually harassed, by jobactive providers. These experiences resulted in women developing anxious behaviours such as hypervigilance.

"It's like seeing a parole officer for a crime I didn't commit… Some of the workers seemed to get perverse pleasure from making you fearful.” – ‘Stephanie’

In spite of negative experiences with Welfare to Work, women displayed persistence and courage in the face of adversity.

The women who participated in this research displayed considerable persistence in response to the challenges they faced. All participants understood the value of their role as mothers, even if they felt that jobactive and Centrelink did not. Several women are pursuing long term goals and aspirations to support themselves and their children in spite of the pressures of financial insecurity and a harsh and inflexible compliance regime.

“It disregards the impact of current activities on long-term career prospects and is entirely focused on hours worked and dollars earned.” – ‘Margot’

“The government must hate women.” – ‘Natalie’

Recommendations

Our report makes several recommendations to improve the Welfare to Work policy so that it can effectively support single mothers (and others) into employment. They are captured under four headings:

1.    Align Welfare to Work policy to client needs.

2.    Ensure jobactive and Centrelink staff are equipped to build on clients’ own motivation and capability, and to provide holistic, person-centred support to vulnerable clients.

3.    Strengthen accountability and participatory structures between the jobactive providers and the clients.

4.    Adapt Welfare to Work policy so that it supports long term goals and meaningful educational and employment outcomes.

To read more on the experiences of the single mothers we talked to, our findings and recommendations, you can find the full report and the compendium of case studies here.

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