A blow to single parents, on the eve of Anti-Poverty Week
When the Federal Government announced the mining tax, the mining industry employed an armada of lobbyists, produced reams of reports and flooded TV stations with advertising to get their point of view across.
The resulting debate dominated headlines and won the miners major concessions.
Single parents and their children can’t afford well-paid lobbyists or advertising campaigns. In the main they’re too busy with work and family responsibilities to organise themselves.
That’s why you may not have heard about legislation that passed through Parliament last week which will reduce payments for about 100,000 single parents – many of whom are working casual and low-paid jobs.
This measure has been introduced as part of the Government’s bid to balance the budget this year, and has the support of Tony Abbott and the Coalition.
I’m going to refer to sole parents as “her” in this column. That’s not to overlook the many sole fathers who face the same struggle to balance work and family, but to recognise that 90 per cent of sole parents are women.
The legislation forces single parents off the Parenting Payment onto the Newstart Allowance (the dole) as soon as their youngest child turns eight. Sole parents will effectively get the same payment as the unemployed – a drop from around $320 per week to a maximum of $246.
Although the Government has dressed up this budget saving as a way of encouraging sole parents to work, the reality is that it will take money from the pockets of thousands of people already in work.
Contrary to stereotypes, the majority of sole parents – around 60 per cent – are in paid work, and the rate increases the older their children get.
Most sole parents want to work so they can provide for their children, and ensure that they can lift themselves out of poverty and have a career when their children leave home.
This week is Anti-Poverty week, and research by the Australian Council of Social Services has found that 600,000 children are living below the poverty line (of 50 per cent of the median income), and half of these are in single parent families.
Many single parents work and still claim a portion of the Parenting Payment, and this change will leave them worse off.
If a single parent is getting the Parenting Payment, she can earn an extra $87 per week before the payment is reduced but on Newstart her payment is reduced after earning just $31.
The reduction is also sharper on Newstart and means that a single parent in part-time, low-paid work might be over $100 a week worse off from the shift.
She will then either have to find $100 worth of savings from her already tight budget, meaning either she or the kids will go without, or try and squeeze in extra work to make up the shortfall.
This is where the difficulties sole parents face when trying to find work kick in. Single parents need to balance their children’s needs with the demands of their job.
What happens to the woman who doesn’t get paid because she can’t turn up for a shift because she has to take a child to the emergency department? Or the one who has to turn down a job because it involves night or week-end shifts and there’s no child care available? How does she handle school holidays?
These pressures means that single parents are more likely to end up in casual, contract or other forms of insecure work, which means their hours and income are often irregular. This cycle is difficult to get out of, because they always need to put their children ahead of their boss.
Taking money out of the pockets of single parents only exacerbates this stress, it does not make it any easier for single parents to find decent work or increase their skills.
Keeping payments to single parents higher than the Newstart allowance would recognise two things.
First the contribution sole parents are making to society by raising children and the difficulties this involves. These difficulties certainly don’t stop when a child turns eight.
Second the fact that while being on the dole can often, though not always, be temporary, being a sole parent is likely to last for many years, reducing any savings that a person has built up.
The Newstart payment itself has been falling in comparison to both average and minimum wages for the last 15 years. While we need to keep Newstart at a level that gives people an incentive to move into work, we also need to recognise that for many people it is their sole source of income.
You don’t help people into a job by forcing them into poverty. This exacerbates any underlying problems people have, such as mental or physical illness, which may be making it hard for them to find work. It makes it harder for them to access training and makes them more socially isolated.
Even the Business Council of Australia agrees that Newstart is too low, saying that the current level is “likely to erode the capacity of individuals to present themselves well or maintain their readiness for work”.
I think it is good for children to grow up in households where people work. However these changes will not do that, instead more children will be at risk of becoming homeless, or missing out at school because their mother can’t afford to pay for books or excursions.
I would support any policy that makes it easier for single parents to get training or find work, but this change is simply about saving money. It has been done with no consultation with those affected. The Government has not even waited for a Senate inquiry into the issue to report.
Compare this to the reaction to the ACTU’s plan for a broader “super profits” tax, to more fairly balance the tax load paid by businesses, another issue in the news last week.
Under the ACTU’s model, super-profitable companies would pay tax of 40 to 50 per cent, but many businesses would pay less tax because they could claim a deduction for “normal” returns to equity investors.
Big companies that enjoy established market position might pay more, while smaller and newer businesses might pay less, giving more incentives to innovative new companies.
This proposal is not being treated seriously by governments or business, regardless of its merits, because it would upset too many powerful interests.
If only single parents had the same level of influence, and the same chance to fight for decent treatment.
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