Juanita McLaren, interning with Good Shepherd, has written previously about her experience as a single mother of Centrelink policies (see her posts here and here). On International Women's Day (8 March 2017), she was interviewed by Rayna Fahey on the radio show The Renegade Economists on 3CR, discussing the feminisation of poverty in Australia and the role that government policy plays.
Single mothers are seen as unemployed workers before they are seen as parents. Parenting is considered an 'unproductive' activity. In fact, it has been nine years since there has been an attempt to provide a true financial accounting of the cost of raising a child. While government agencies request information on how much is spent by a single parent on such items as housing or utilities, there is no way to report what you are not spending money on - because there is simply not enough money. For example, no participation in children's sports teams, no new tires, no getting the vacuum cleaner fixed, no new shoes for the children. Incidentals are not included. Additionally, in those nine years educational costs, as one prominent example, have increased significantly. For example, it is now a requirement at many schools to purchase a device, which will set a family back a minimum of $500; the allowance for school uniforms is no longer enough to cover costs; books are not covered at all. Research conducted by Tanya Corrie found that women living on restricted incomes are in fact excellent at budgeting - there is simply not enough money to cover expenses. There is also a perverse rule that payments are significantly reduced when the youngest child turns eight. That child continues to grow, to eat, to need shoes, to incur all kinds of expenses.
The mother is judged, rather than the system that keeps her and her children in poverty.
The reduction in pay when the youngest child reaches eight is meant to serve as an incentive to work. However, for single parents this means being pushed into precarious work as they require maximum flexibility, while also (often) paying someone else to look after one's children. It is a sign of the devaluing of caring work that child care is one of the lowest paid sectors in our society.
Juanita says, "My message to you savvy young women with careers - I was you once." Many of the single mothers who are struggling, including Juanita, are university graduates who have held prestigious positions in the past and may have even worked full-time when still partnered. However, "when you ask for financial help, that's where the burden comes in - and the judgement - and I need to prove to people that I am contributing." Single parents are viewed as failures - and, consequently, the system is designed to punish them.
The introduction of the no-fault divorce meant it is now upon the woman to negotiate with their ex-partner for child support. This is never easy once a relationship has broken down, and especially so for women experiencing violence, as it is often a choice between remaining in a violent relationship and poverty. Older women are also now suffering from the effects of the no-fault divorce, as most do not have enough money in their superannuation account to survive their retirement years.
"We are one step away from poverty at all times because we don't have a buffer for any incidental cost."
Housing is particularly hard to obtain. Affordable housing for single women has dropped from 72 suburbs to 28 suburbs over the past 10 years. Looking for a rental as a single mother with three children, you are at the bottom of any owner's list of applications.
"Because women are seen as the carers and nurturers, it's assumed that the woman should be the one to give up - everything. What they're not considering is... we're not just giving up things for ourselves, we're giving up opportunities for our children." There's a disconnect between reality and these very outdated ideas about the real world. It is put on single mothers to make any change needed - including moving far away from social networks, job opportunities and schools.
We need to shift these arcane stereotypes of single mothers... For the vast majority of single mothers, single parenting was not their choice. We should be holding them up, not putting them down and judging them and their experiences. Often, these experiences are caused by decisions made by the other partner in the relationship, but there is a lack of holding to account for the partner without custody of the children.