Women's Policy Action Tank: the 'preferably unheard' - women and the income support system

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Much has been made of both the legitimacy and the high maintenance cost of the “welfare state.”  Tanya Corrie argues in this policy analysis that reducing or eliminating income support leads to higher economic and societal costs through the entrenched disadvantage for people who rely on it, particularly women and their children. 

Scorecard on Women and Policy provided by Tanya Corrie, Development Lead – Financial Security, Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand

Topic:  Federal Income Support Policy

“There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”[i]

We need to fundamentally change the way we live and work in Australia. Until this happens, access to an adequate income support safety net will remain essential for women. Women are overwhelmingly primary carers for children and older relatives, are often engaged in insecure and low paid work, and are more likely to be financially disadvantaged. Women are also far more likely to experience family violence and bear the subsequent financial costs of this, including poor credit records, challenges finding employment and homelessness.[ii] For older women, the accumulated disadvantage over their life course leads to poverty in retirement, as the post by Robbie Campo on this pointed out earlier this week.

Regressive income support policies such as removing Family Tax Benefits, tightening concessions, restricting access to the Aged and Disability Support Pensions, limiting support for single parents when their youngest child is eight years old, and cuts to Medicare and dental health disproportionately impact on these women and further entrench their disadvantage.

Sole parents will be some of the hardest hit by changes to the welfare system

Eighty-two percent of sole parent families are headed up by women, 25 per cent of which live below the poverty line.[iii] Single parents face a range of barriers when looking for and retaining paid employment, particularly work that is well paid. This is compounded further if the non-custodial parent is not sharing in care or not paying child support – 61.5 per cent of sole parent households headed by women are on low-income, whereas for sole parent households headed by men, the figure is 49 per cent. For women raising children, the income support system is essential.[iv]

However this is under serious threat. According to the Council for Single Mothers and their Children, if proposed changes to legislation to reduce Family Tax Benefit A and B become a reality “a sole parent family with one child over 13 years will lose approximately $2,500 per year and a sole parent with two children will lose approximately $3,000 per year.” For families with children older than 16 years all support will be abolished.

Women who have experienced family violence will also be disadvantaged

Access to the income support safety net enables survivors of family violence to rebuild their lives after leaving violence, and supports them to re-establish their economic security – economic insecurity being an often cited barrier to women leaving.[v] Further eroding the adequacy of these payments has heavily detrimental impacts on women and children leaving violence.

Cutting welfare is both economically and socially foolish

‘Unsustainable’ and ‘relentless’ – this is the narrative used by the current government when framing income support policy. In the face of a growing aged population and with the backdrop of a structural deficit in the federal budget, the response has been to savagely cut welfare spending with seemingly little regard for the consequences. Income support cuts make no sense as economic policy: people with little money have nothing discretionary to spend, stifling economic growth. These cuts make even less sense as a social policy: entrenching and furthering inequality leads to poorer social cohesion, higher rates of violence and crime, and poorer health outcomes. This will mean an increase in child poverty and subsequent social cost.

It is argued that cuts to income support would be offset through economic growth and the creation of jobs, via the reduction in company tax and similar policies. This assertion in itself is questionable – the International Monetary Fund have recently reported that the theory of ‘trickle-down’ economics does not work in encouraging economic growth or enabling greater wealth equality.[vi]

Regressive income support policies and the rhetoric that supports them further malign excluded groups who have less of a voice in the political process; they become easier targets and are “preferably unheard” by policy makers. One way the voices of women are heard in the policy process is through women’s budget statements.

The disappearance of the women’s budget is indicative of government stance

Amanda Stewart from ANU calls this omission out clearly: “From 1983 to 2013, the federal government produced a Women’s Budget Statement to scrutinise annual budgets for their impact on women and girls.”

As a community, we need to question why this is no longer done. We need also to consistently question the rationale behind policy. Applying a gendered lens, and looking at other levels of disadvantage, helps us understand who is most impacted by policy. In the absence of Women’s Budget Statements the Women’s Policy Action Tank and other advocates such as Equality Rights Alliance and the National Foundation for Australian Women, amongst others, is an important enabler.


This analysis is a contribution to the Scorecard on Women and Policy project, initiated by the Women's Policy Action Tank.  We invite policy specialists in all areas to provide analysis of public policy using a gender lens:  womenspolicy@goodshep.org.au  Follow us on Twitter: @PolicyforWomen


[i] Quoted from Arundhati Roy

[ii] Corrie, T (2016) Economic Security for Survivors of Family Violence: Understanding and measuring the impact Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, Abbotsford

[iii] ABS (2011) as referenced in Corrie, T Ibid.

[iv] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2012, Jan). 4125.0 Gender Indicators, Financial Stress. Retrieved March 7, 2014, from Australian Bureau of Statistics: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4125.0~Jan%202012~Main%20Features~Financial%20stress~1240

[v] Braff, R., & Barrett Meyering, I. (2011). Seeking Security: promoting women's economic security after family violence. Sydney: University of New South Wales.

[vi] Era Dabla-Norris, Kalpana Kochhar, Nujin Suphaphiphat, Frantisek Ricka, Evridiki Tsounta (2015) Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective, International Monetary Fund Strategy, Policy, and Review Department.