The same old story: How Newstart fails single mothers at every turn

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Popular policy analyst Juanita McLaren (@DefrostedLady) shares her latest roundabout journey back to applying for the notoriously low Newstart Allowance and the attendant headaches that has involved. Juanita’s story is a case study of the myriad ways that the government’s policies fail to appreciate the complexities of everyday life and the difficulty of balancing viable employment with raising children as a sole parent.

 

Contract work is increasingly common

Two weeks ago I bit the bullet, stuffed my pride in a sock and applied for Newstart. I really didn’t want to. Last time I was on income support it took me nearly a year to get back on track financially once I got a job.  I’ve written before about my experiences on welfare to work[i], so as you can imagine, getting back on the horse was really a last resort.

At the start of the year I had a wonderful job, which provided me the flexibility needed to continue my master’s degree. I had to stop my study when moved from Parenting Payment Single to Newstart when my youngest (of three children) turned eight, due to the impossible financial constraints I faced on the lower payment. As for many in the gig economy, the contract I had came to its end date and the organisation was not able to renew it.

While on contract, I did manage to ferret away enough money to cover a month’s worth of usual bills and rent for future gaps in employment, although the first nine months of pay went toward replacing things like the broken vacuum cleaner that had been out of action for six months, a frying pan that was not fit to cook anything more than its own char, the worst two of the four crappy tyres on the car, and various other repairs on items that are essential to effective and efficient day-to-day living but that I couldn’t afford on Newstart.

This time around I was only unemployed for two weeks before I was headhunted, and although the new job was only going to be a six-month contract it was a good opportunity.

After two months of this job, however, I found the inflexibility and out-of-hours work required was unsustainable.  I was taking my nine-year-old to evening meetings at the office sometimes a couple of times per week, and weekend work was expected. In short, the job didn’t work with my family and cracks were showing with my health and in the home, ultimately affecting the kids as well. As soon as I resigned I knew I’d made the right decision.

Two days later I got a message asking if I was interested in doing some part-time work on a project that was going to take place sometime before Christmas. Various forms and identity checks and blood tests later (just kidding on the blood tests) I was set to go. A series of events out of anyone’s control has meant that the role is still there but not ready to be commenced.

 

The road to financial security is full of twists and turns for single mothers - something the Federal government’s income support policies refuse to acknowledge.  Photo credit Ashcombe Maze and Lavender Gardens.

The road to financial security is full of twists and turns for single mothers - something the Federal government’s income support policies refuse to acknowledge. Photo credit Ashcombe Maze and Lavender Gardens.

An adequate financial buffer is needed to bridging gaps in employment

By now the wheels are falling off financially.  I have spent my buffer savings, the washing machine has died, the oven doesn’t heat up past lukewarm, and I spend a lot of time and money at the laundry (three boys, remember?!) or driving my laundry around town to use friend’s machines.

Compounding this financial precarity, the child support payments that get me across the line each month have ceased since my ex moved overseas in the middle of the year. Despite reciprocal arrangements with Child Support in that country, this is a common experience. “I wish I had more positive news for you,” said the Child Support worker, “but once this happens it takes months to get that money, if at all.”

 

A system focused on control and compliance – not timely assistance

Which is how we arrive at my reluctant application for Newstart two weeks ago. I had approximately 12 items to upload, about eight of which Centrelink already has as a part of my family tax benefit but somehow didn’t have copies on file.  Birth Certificates for my three children, rental agreement, dates around my divorce that happened over five years ago. I even had to recall the dates of when I lived in the UK in 1997/98.  Yes, they wanted actual dates that I flew in and flew out – asked over the phone, no less. I also had to get someone to sign a declaration to prove I’m not living with a partner (i.e., a man isn’t paying for me), as well as separation certificates for my last two jobs, and final pay slips for my last two jobs.  Bank statements to show how completely broke I am helped put an ‘Urgent Processing’ status on my application.

Next was a pleasant 30 minute phone interview asking if I was [suddenly] an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander [in contrast to my lifelong identity in their records] or if I had a disability that would prevent me from accepting any reasonable work to which I responded “no, but I have 100% care of three children which kind of gets in the way of accepting some roles…”. The interviewer laughed, attempting solidarity by saying how kids are hard work, aren’t they? Hyuck hyuck.

Over the last three weeks I volunteered over 40 hours at Victorian election pre-polls.  I’ve had one son to see the doctor which required x-rays.  I’ve been working with the school on issues my younger son is experiencing that have been causing all kinds of consequences in class and home, and I’ve also been applying for jobs, even though the other one I’m keen on may still eventuate. I’ve spent approximately four hours on the phone to Centrelink, four hours attending to all the requirements for the Newstart Application, above five hours getting extensions on bills, or in some instances trying to get bills wavered due to financial hardship.

Today I spent four hours on one job application which I did whilst washing my laundry at my friend’s house.  In my ‘lunch break’ I went to the local high school that my middle child is starting at next year to find a way to cover the $1300 out of pocket expenses to get him in the front door, and that’s after my health care card discounts, despite it being a government school. The receptionist reckons the Wellbeing Coordinator will be able to help with uniforms and some of the books.  But the compulsory Chrome Book that we are required to purchase through the school does not allow for anything but up-front payment of the $637.  That’s more that I get a fortnight in Family Tax Benefit.

My “urgent” application is still processing, and today I rang to see if I had left anything out and if there was some kind of indication of when or if the Newstart Allowance would be granted or not. “Hmm.  There’s a note here in your file for urgent processing...it’s still being processed though. No, you haven’t left anything out.  No, I can’t tell you when it will be finished processing.  Is there anything else I can help with today?”  She is friendly, I can hear her smile down the phone, but I’m not sure that she really understands what $300 to last the next ten days means to a family of four.

The Family Tax Benefit is currently the only income I have access to - $608.02 a fortnight less a deduction that is paying off an overdue utilities bill. Yesterday I was denied access to advance payment as I have a debt of $62.70 from the 2016/17 financial year that was brought to my attention a month ago.

Exacerbating poverty? Not according to the Federal Government

Last month I spoke at the ACOSS annual conference, launching a research project on Single Mothers on Welfare to Work – research I conducted with Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand.  At the same conference, attendees received a speech by the new Federal Minister for Families and Social Services Paul Fletcher regarding the current government’s plans to increase conditionality of welfare, declaring that inequality in Australia is not rising and “the best form of welfare is a job.”

Some people left the auditorium in tears, I felt ill, recalling how hard it was last time I needed the government’s help. I wondered if Mr Fletcher or any of his policy writers actually had any experience of hardship. Who is raising their children and running their households to enable them to enable their careers?  He knew he was going to be speaking to a tough crowd of social workers, individual advocates and the like, but the cold delivery of a dystopian future based on nothing more than judgmental othering left me with chills.

I was furious at this callous speech, but graciously (well, I tried) handed him a copy of the research report saying that it contradicted everything he just said.  He said he’d read it.  I will add that to my list of things to follow up.

At the same conference, Linda Burney MP of the Labor Party said that if Labor wins the Federal election next year they will do a rigorous review of the Newstart allowance rates. How many reviews does it take to see that the payments do not meet the needs of the living expenses required to survive in our market economy? With so much precarious, unpredictable and insecure work across the country, policy needs to recognise that punitive and conditional measures for income support is not helping a situation that the workers did not create and have no control over.

Raising the rate will allow people to manage their lives effectively and with dignity while looking for a job.  Even better – maintain access to the Parenting Payment Single until the youngest child is at least 16 (still dependent, still expensive!). The necessary social services economy that provides jobs to many thousands at Centrelink and the like will still be able to exist, however perhaps staff will able to do less, but do it well, for those who really need help.  Raising the rate will allow those of us who don’t require the assistance to find work to actually spend our time looking for paid employment rather than sorting out bills that will not go away and rectifying errors of a broken system.

 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] Other pieces authored or co-authored by Juanita are:

Weighing the cost of Welfare to Work implementation

Single parent support and the feminisation of poverty

Parents vexed? ParentsNext is poorly designed to support mothers into work

Single mothers and the abattoir: A short review of jobactive positions in Shepparton

‘Citizen Joyce,’ or the experiences of older single mothers in the welfare system

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