Thanks for asking… Mothers say ParentsNext puts parents last

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With the outcome of the recent federal election, the Coalition’s ‘pre-employment’ program known as ParentsNext looks set to continue indefinitely. While a recent Senate Inquiry found the program to be deeply flawed and often harmful to participants, the program is not without its defenders. In today’s piece, Ella Buckland (@EllaNBuckland), who has become a strong advocate for women who are enrolled and is leading a petition to have the program made voluntary, writes about her own experiences and those of other mothers who are on the program in an effort to set the record straight on the program’s merits.

As I write this it is National SES day. Volunteers who risk their lives are celebrated- politicians take photos with them dressed in orange and post on social media about it. Good, I’m glad that happens, work should be recognised, especially when it’s unpaid. However what about single and sole mothers? Why is it that we are seen as a burden, an annoyance, lacking in mental and moral autonomy? Why are we not heroes for our unpaid work?

When I became a sole parent it was a shock. It was not something I wanted, asked for, planned for or really knew how to cope with.  Women become single mothers for a variety of reasons. Like me they can be mature and educated with professional experience, or they can be twenty-something with no formal schooling. Whatever their circumstances, single and sole mothers are heroes. The amount of work and burden of responsibility is incredible, and many parent with little or no back-up.

When it comes to valuing unpaid work, the everyday difficulties of raising a human being without help should be valued alongside more celebrated roles. Photo credits: ABC News (  SES  and  fire  volunteers), Pixabay ( mother and child ).

When it comes to valuing unpaid work, the everyday difficulties of raising a human being without help should be valued alongside more celebrated roles. Photo credits: ABC News ( SES and fire volunteers), Pixabay (mother and child).

As you may already know, ParentsNext claims to be an assistance and pre-employment program to help targeted parents (almost all women, many without a partner) prepare for entering employment by requiring regular meetings and ‘approved activities’ while their youngest child is not yet enrolled in school. A recent Parliamentary Inquiry found that many participants don’t experience the program as ‘supportive’– nor have I. In my advocacy work against the program I hear from other women in similar situations, all of whom also find ParentsNext to be a barrier, not a help. I am sharing some of these stories anonymously here.

ParentsNext legislation states: “With approximately 96 per cent of participants expected to be women… the program aims to increase female participation in the workforce.”

We are consistently told by the Coalition that the “best form of welfare is a job.” This statement is insulting and in no way acknowledges the structural issues associated with returning to the workforce while living in poverty and sole parenting.

“I would love a job, I miss my job, but my son’s needs come first right now, and he needs me to be a mum for him. His dad is out of the picture, and doesn’t pay any child support. Why is his dad not hounded by a job agency? Why is it me who is here doing all this work that is being hassled and punished?”

Women are completely capable of arranging their lives, and with time, as their children age, these women will work towards financial self-sufficiency. ParentsNext interrupts this process and delivers new structural barriers that impinge on these women’s ability to plan for their future.

“I was studying before ParentsNext came along, but now my social security payments are contingent on me studying. I have had to reduce my hours of study because of the stress of fulfilling ParentsNext requirements. Why should a ParentsNext provider get money for me doing what I was doing already? Why should I be penalised for all the parenting I’m doing on my own?”

It is not only the Government’s desire to dismantle the structures that support our most vulnerable, but also to create new structures that simultaneously label individuals as undeserving while re-distributing income support funds to private enterprise. The ParentsNext program costs the taxpayer $350 million over 3 years in contracts with private ‘service providers’. This amount is in addition to the income support provided to the 75,000 parenting payment recipients on ParentsNext. ParentsNext providers also get cash bonuses for ongoing caseloads as well as a range of incentive payments. Some of these payments are claimed by providers despite a lack of clear benefit to their clients.

“ ‘Career mentoring’ so far has meant show up once every three months, get ticked off the list, go home. What a waste of time. I found my job on my own, but I still have to go to these stupid appointments because I’m not doing 15 hours a week.”

Providers are also paid incentives for placing participants in work – something I discovered when I landed a job by myself and was then forced into signing a job plan or have my payments suspended. My provider received $1,000 for “finding me work” while leaving me with a reporting mess to DHS which threatened my payment when I have $15 in the bank and 3 weeks before receiving my first pay check. This experience is also common, according to the mothers I talk to.

The author delivers her petition to make ParentsNext voluntary at the Senate Inquiry held in February 2019.  Photo credit: Luke Henrique-Gome s.

The author delivers her petition to make ParentsNext voluntary at the Senate Inquiry held in February 2019. Photo credit: Luke Henrique-Gomes.

Privitisation of social security comes with social and economic costs, and beyond this the incentivisation of a punitive targeted compliance framework aimed at single mothers is just plain psychotic.

ParentsNext and jobactive (the Welfare to Work ‘unemployment’ program that ParentsNext participants will graduate to when their youngest reaches school age) are the first “Government run” programs that has allowed the providers, not Centrelink, to “use their discretion” when deciding on an exemption for a participant. Providers have no formal qualifications. Providers are incentivised with money. Providers don’t get their money if a woman is on an exemption. Providers therefore don’t give exemptions. Many women who are newly single mothers are dealing with Family Court, abusive ex- partners, caring for their children and also at times elderly or sick parents.  Just the sudden reality of being solely responsible for a child or children is debilitating on its own. Being asked to beg for an exemption from an unqualified ParentsNext employee is too much. These providers have so much power that a letter from a GP can be ignored on a whim.

“Just attending the appointment (for ParentsNext) is difficult for me, as it’s in the town my ex lives, directly opposite the police station that I ran to for help after being assaulted by the ex. It’s a very triggering experience, my anxiety is so overwhelming leading up to & during the appointment, takes me a day or 2 to get over it…”

 Why is one type of unpaid work valued over others? Is it because people think that single mothers just want to stay at home with the babies? Because this was not the case for me, and nor is it the case for most of the women I speak to. These women are mopping up the mess of an absent father - usually giving up their careers, moving to regional areas to afford living costs, or to be near family for support. These women feel trapped and terrified by their circumstances, and yet they have sacrificed it all to be a parent. These women are heroes.

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.