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Cuts to single parent payments lead to hardship
There are 630,000 Australian lone parent families with dependents – 84 per cent single mothers and 16 per cent single fathers. 54 per cent of these single parents have a youngest child less than nine years of age.
Of the parents with a child less than 9 years of age 59 per cent were in some form of employment end of June 2011 according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2011). But by the time the youngest child reached 15 years of age the employability circumstances of the parent rose – with 73 per cent of lone parents with the youngest child at least 15 years of age in some form of employment as of end June 2011. It is inevitable that people given the opportunity will seek employment without the Government prematurely pushing them into looking for work.
On January 1 Federal Minister for Families, Jenny Macklin announced that 80,000 lone parent families with dependents would be affected with payment reductions and many moved on to Newstart payments and forced to look for work – the Newstart payments would be less than the Parenting payments. The Government continues to defend its decision but peak advocacy groups have condemned the decision. Condemnations have also come from the United Nations.
On March 4, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) called on the Australian Government to detail its response to a United Nations request for it to explain the decision to cut the payments of over 80,000 lone parent families.
The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights wrote to the Australian Government raising concerns about the $100 a week payment cuts to lone parents. These cuts took effect on January 1.
The letter from the UN Special Rapporteur suggested that the payment cuts may be a violation of several rights included under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – including the right to social security and the right to an adequate standard of living. The letter included the suggestion that the Government’s decision to reduce the payments was a retrogressive measure.
The Rapporteur raised concerns that there had been violations in reference to the children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child and on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (84 per cent of lone parents are women).
In reference to the Single Parent payment cuts by the Government the ACOSS website stated that “in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
“It is clear that this certainly was not the case. Unfortunately achieving a ‘Budget’ saving was the primary consideration ahead of the rights and wellbeing of children in single parent families who are already among the most disadvantaged in this country.”
“With one in six children living in poverty in Australia, it is unfathomable that, in the face of such a letter of concern from the UN Special Rapporteur, the Federal Government still went ahead with these cuts.”
“It is incumbent on the Commonwealth Government to address this wrong-doing that will cost our community more in the long term by driving more single parents and their children into poverty.”
Bronwyn Ryan is a 48 year old Brisbane mother, a lone parent who is squeezing in studies in Community Development while raising her children. On March 26 in Adelaide at the Australian Council of Social Services National Conference Ms Rees story was read to the more than 400 attendees. She could not be there herself.
(right) Bronwyn Ryan
“My name is Bronwyn Ryan.”
In her story she said that being a lone parent was not a matter of choice. It was not an option.
“I am here due to a domestic violence relationship, which after ten years of mental and physical abuse I chose to run and hide.”
“I came out of it suffering depression, PTSD, and anxiety attacks. Through understanding and learning new skills to cope I was able to start feeling safe in the world, with my own research, counselling, plus a good relationship with my general practitioner.”
“I had always done odd jobs for people when the children were small; cleaning houses, mowing lawns and so on.”
“The best thing for me was going back to work, my confidence went up and I had a sense of belonging. The feeling of being able to support my children and make sure all their needs was being met.”
“In 2007 I injured my upper arms at work, which has left me with a permanent upper limb disability. After three years and surgery on my right elbow I again was lost and felt worthless as a person unable to dress or even shower myself, not being able to support my children. I had a nervous breakdown as this was a battle I could not beat. I continued to try and work only to injure myself and with the prospects of more surgery on my right shoulder. I had to finally agree to stop working and look at alternative ideas, which was to study.”
“At my age it was difficult to re-enter a study environment.”
“I received a credit on one assessment. I felt so proud of myself and I could see in my children they too were proud. “
“This all ended when I received the call late last year about the changes to Newstart.”
“Christmas is something I have rarely enjoyed. I find it to be a stressful time.”
“Then there was school for the children looming.”
“One daughter going into Year 12, another going into Year 10. Both requiring uniforms and accessories.”
“My eldest has been told she cannot go to formal this year as I owe over $1000 in school fees.”
“I also received a letter from my real estate rental unit stating that my National Rental Affordability Scheme rent is going up due to indexation.”
“All I could think, was hang on, my Single Parent payment just went down by $200.”
“None of it all made sense to me.”
“Depression and anxiety overwhelmed me. The fear of not knowing how we are going to survive.”
“I have stopped eating properly.”
“I am not sleeping well.”
“I am falling behind in my studies.”
“I am unable to sit in class without breaking down in tears. “
“I broke the cycle of sexual abuse and domestic violence in my home. I protected my children. I teach them they can have or do anything they want in this world as long as they work for it.”
“I don’t feel it is healthy for my children to see me this way. They know me as a fighter, as a strong person, and that is because I fight to understand and then work to the changes.”
“Not this time.”
“I am not able.”
“Not with this Government decision.”
“A decision that has been forced upon us and will only push us further into poverty with not much hope of getting out.”
“So at this stage I am angry and I am sad and there is nothing in between.”
“I wait anxiously every day for our Government to listen to all the facts which state this is wrong on so many levels.”
“Pushing people further into poverty is not the answer.”
“I am a tired old battler.”
“I am not living anymore.”
“My soul deserves to smile.”
“So do my children.”
Last week Ms Ryan read several articles on The Stringer. “I read your articles about the extent of homelessness in our nation and realised how many of us are also facing the prospect of homelessness. There is already a group called Single Parents Facing Homelessness.”
“I read what you wrote about the number of children under 12 years of age in this country who are homeless – 18,000 of them. I was shocked. This is unacceptable in this country.”
According to the ABS Census 2012, Australia has 106,000 homeless persons, a rise of 17,000 from the last Census count. Two-thirds of the homelessness is accounted by people under 35 years of age, and 18,000 are children under 12 years of age. Australia is the world’s 12th largest economy, and Australia enjoys the world’s highest income median (per capita). On the United Nations Development Program (UNDEP) Human Development Index Australia is ranked second in the world for social wealth, public health and even for the quotient of “happiness”. So how can it be that one of the world’s wealthiest countries has 18,000 homeless children under the age of 12? How can it be that a wealthy nation such as Australia is reducing and cutting payments to some of its most vulnerable citizens, lone parents with dependents?
The UN Special Rapporteur asked the Australian Government as to whether an impact assessment was conducted concerning an adequate standard of living of the families affected. The Rapporteur asked whether an impact assessment was carried out concerning children’s rights and interests.
The Stringer spoke with a number of lone parents nationwide and to some of the groups representing them – the stories bespoke of extreme hardship.
A NSW country town mother Leah Mullin said, “I would like to tell you how the changes have affected my family financially.”
“Prior to being dumped on the dole I received a Parenting payment of $633 fortnightly. I received a Family Tax benefit for my 15 year old daughter of $146 per fortnight. Therefore I was getting a payment of around $390 weekly. I also receive Child Support payments for my 17 year old and 15 year old of around $1200, therefore about $300 per week.”
“All up I was trying to live this family on $690 per week. The rent is $170 per week, electricity at about $80 per week, food at about $300 per week. Often I spend less on food se we can have fuel or pay for medicine. Anyway, it adds up to $730 a week. That is over budget by $40.”
“So how am I to pay for medical expenses, school expenses, repairs to the vehicle, car registration?”
“Now that I am on Newstart, the dole in other words, I get $540 fortnightly in addition to the Family Tax benefit and Child Support payments. So now I am trying to survive on $620 per week. Here lies my dilemma – do I forego the rent or food?”
“Till seven weeks ago I was employed casually as a Funeral director. I was a valued employee. I declared what I earned to Centrelink. The bills were paid but not much else. Now I am unable to work due to a back injury.”
“So as I am unable to work I survive on what is the dole.”
“Despite medical certificates I am not entitled to a different payment in the meantime.”
“While on the Parenting Payment I was allowed to earn $176 fortnightly as a threshold before my payments were affected. This was before the Parenting Payments were reduced. Now on Newstart I am only allowed to earn $64 fortnightly before my payments are affected. I am $163 worse off each week. This makes it impossible to make ends meet whether I work or not because I lose much of my payment and just cannot get ahead otherwise.”
“And even if I can look for full time work so we can survive the job market is competitive, ten people going for the one job.”
“I am now finding myself needing to approach charities for food vouchers and for financial aid to pay utility bills. Whereas I had only approached them a few times during the last 16 years I am now finding myself going regularly.”
“I would like to explain how the Government’s changes have affected my family.”
“I was renting a small 2 ½ bedroom house for $170 per week. My eldest boy moved home last year and was living in a caravan. He is looking for work but is yet to find it. He needs a drivers licence but won’t be eligible till June. I was only entitled to $12 Rent Assistance per week.”
Ms Mullin is now living in the caravan in a nearby paddock to their house where the three children live.
“I am depressed, in constant pain. I have to drive 100 kilometres round trip when I need to get the medical certificates each month from the general practitioner.”
“I am often not able to drive my eldest son to job seeking appointments. My other son wants to pull out of school, he is in Year 11. He wants to get a job but doesn’t realise how hard it is to get one. My daughter often does not go to school as there is often no suitable lunch for her to take to school and no lunch money.”
“Quite frankly, there is often not enough food in the house for three growing teenagers.”
“I feel like a failure as a parent.”
“Society frowns on single parents.”
“I wake up in the morning but it takes me a while to get out of bed and get dressed. I take my medication to start my day. I go over to the house where the kids are and get them off to school as best I can. I do some jobs around the house, put out the washing and then lie flat on back, the only position that handles the pain. I wait till they come from school and then I cook dinner for them. Sometimes they help.”
“I then go back to the caravan and lay down. I often lay awake wondering how the Hell did I get here.”
“How are we going to survive?”
“Where will I get enough money to feed my family?”
Ms Mullins asked The Stringer “where are these jobs our Prime Minister wants us to take on?”
“The Government’s changes are destroying sole parent families. What do they want, more children in childcare or at home fending on their own while we work? These changes also prevent women and men from leaving violent and abusive relationships as there is no way they can survive if they instead become reliant on welfare.”
“These changes will force kids onto the streets and into trouble.”
“These changes are creating homelessness.”
“It will not be long before some parents take their lives or start sending their children in the care of the State.”
She told The Stringer, “This is my despair and I only scratched the surfaced for you.”
Families Minister Jenny Macklin urged single parents whose benefits were slashed from January 1 to go out and find a job “and to show their children a strong work ethic.”
More than 80,000 lone parents with dependent children were forced off their pension and moved to Newstart – the dole – once their youngest child turned eight years of age, therefore leaving the families up to $223 a fortnight a worse off.
“Unfortunately, we have far too many people – children – growing up in Australia in families where nobody is working” said Ms Macklin.
“It is better for the family. It is great for the kids to see mum and/or dad, or both, going to work.”
This is the same Ms Macklin, accustomed to a $300,000 per annum salary and a near all expenses paid lifestyle, who made the gaffe that she could live on $32 a day.
ACOSS CEO, Dr Cassandra Goldie said the cut of between $60 to $110 per week for lone parents has had a devastating effect. “These families were already struggling as they live below the poverty line. Newstart is paid at a much lower rate than parenting payments.” She said that these cuts should have been delayed at least until Newstart payments were increased.
As a result of these cuts the Government will make meagre savings of $728 million over four years.
– On April 13 there will be nationwide rallies coordinated by a number of lone parent groups and other support organisations. They will call on the Government to listen to them
“Come join us in our fight against unjust legislation that has place over 100,000 single parents and their families below the poverty line. It is fact that 68% of single parents work, and 38% either work and study,” said Bronwyn Ryan
Sydney – NSW – http://www.facebook.com/groups/248350818628402/ 11.00am – 2.00pm Woodriff Garden Penrith
Campbelltown – NSW – https://www.facebook.com/events/132889813560103/ 10.00am – 4.00pm Mawson Park, Campbelltown
Newcastle – NSW – http://www.facebook.com/groups/312432225543108/ Details TBC
Brisbane – QLD – https://www.facebook.com/events/519216168124170/ Meet King George Square 11.30am then march to Roma St Parklands
Adelaide – SA – http://www.facebook.com/groups/499740443411807/ Meet at Victoria Square 12:30pm then march to Parliament House
Adelaide – SA – https://www.facebook.com/events/501153463282104/ 11.00am – 2.00pm Elder Park, King William Rd, Adelaide