There are 80,000 sole parents on unemployment benefits, and their situation has largely been overlooked in the “Raise the rate” debate over increasing Newstart, a payment welfare advocates and business leaders say is punishingly low.
“It put us in a very tight situation and made it that much harder, after what felt like an arbitrary birthday,” Mary says.
“The assumption is that that is an age that will prompt you into working, but I was always trying to find appropriate work that was family-friendly. It had nothing to do with if she was six or if she was 10.”
Jennifer started on the sole parenting payment when her daughter was three and she split from her ex-partner. She worked as much as she could, taking part-time and contract work in IT with the welfare payment supplementing her income.
But her work had to fit around her daughter, particularly when she started school.
“I was always the one to be available if she was sick,” Jennifer says.
“She was diagnosed with ADHD when she was seven, and then there’s all of the appointments that come with that – liaising with the school, doctors’ visits and counsellor appointments – I don’t think it would have been possible if I had been working full-time.”
The consequence was that when Jennifer was bumped onto the lower Newstart payment, she had to explain away a lot of holes in her CV, while seeking a level of family-friendly flexibility many employers don’t give to even long-standing employees.
“I would have been in all kinds of strife if I had let an eight-year-old walk to and from school by herself, home to an empty house.”
Jennifer’s situation deteriorated and she ended up homeless for a while – staying with friends for short periods, then a couple of women’s shelters before she found a cheap granny flat to rent in Sydney’s inner west.
“I budget really tightly,” says Jennifer. “I did university-level maths. It’s not my understanding of how a budget works that is the problem. But you can’t budget with zero.”
The Australian Council for Social Services says the policy has contributed to a rise in child poverty, and has greatly increased poverty among single parents out of paid work.
According to the 2018 ACOSS Poverty In Australia report, child poverty rose from 16.5 per cent in 2013/14 to 17.2 per cent in 2015/16, after 80,000 parents were shifted onto the Newstart Allowance in January 2013.
The increase in the poverty rate for unemployed single parents was startling – according to the report, it rose from 35 per cent of unemployed single parents in 2013 to 59 per cent in 2015.
This compares to the general poverty rate of 38 per cent for all unemployed people.
It was the Howard government that first started fiddling with welfare for sole parents. In 2006, as part of its “welfare to work” program, it announced single parents claiming the PPS after July 1, 2006, would lose it when their youngest turned eight.
Crucially, those receiving the payment before 2006 were “grandfathered”, meaning they could keep claiming the higher payment until their youngest turned 16.
In 2013 the Gillard government, looking for budget savings, dropped the Howard-era grandfathering provision, meaning all single parents were affected by the drop in income on their youngest’s eighth birthday.
An analysis by a group of Australian National University and UNSW academics, including Professor Peter Whiteford of the Crawford School of Public Policy and Ben Phillips from the Centre for Social Research and Methods, found that since 2006, single parents on the PPS with two younger children have lost nearly $85 a fortnight, about 6 per cent of their disposable incomes.
According to the analysis, which was written up for The Conversation website, for parents with older children above the eight-year-old cut-off point the loss is about $271 a fortnight, or 20 per cent of their disposable income.
“In total there are around 360,000 with children, Australia’s poorest, who are getting considerably less financial support,” the authors wrote. “The poorest families, and their children, will increasingly fall behind the rest of the population.”
The same analysis showed sole parent employment has increased since 2006, but it is not entirely clear the policy change drove that, as the trend began in the middle of the 1990s, well before the welfare was cut back.
The policy is unique in the near-unanimity of the Labor voices condemning it, after they introduced it.
Jenny Macklin, who was minister for Families, Community Affairs and Indigenous Affairs in the Gillard government, later said of the policy that “we got it wrong”.
When they were vying for the leadership of the Labor party in 2013, both Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten said Labor needed to revise the policy.
“Sole parent payments is an area where we made a mistake,” Mr Albanese told ABC’s Insiders program in September 2013.
Mr Shorten said: “We need to revisit our policies to do with sole parents … we need to make it unambiguous Labor is in [their] corner.”
A spokesman for Mr Albanese said the sole parent pension was part of Labor’s revision of its policy platform following its electoral loss.
Linda Burney, shadow minister for families and social services, told the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that “issues of poverty for single parents and their children are of great concern to me”.
Meanwhile, Jennifer is still looking for full-time work.
“It’s not a matter of ability, or willingness to work. Where are the jobs for people like me?” she says.
“I realise the statistics include me, and yet they don’t seem to reflect my reality.”
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards