'Family first' rhetoric neglects single mothers

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In almost every government economic policy, we hear of its concern for the family. From the NBN rollout, to emission reduction and electricity prices, government proclaims a commitment to assist families meet the financial burden of the cost of living.

Close-up Of mother with baby (Getty Creative)Yet for all the talk about families, there remains one type of family that consistently seems to be omitted from pro-family government rhetoric: that of the single mother. Instead of making life easier for single-mother families, the government has imposed additional requirements upon single mothers as a pre-condition to their receiving the Parenting Payment they need to support themselves and their children.

The program is called ParentsNext. While referring to 'parents', the government anticipates that 'approximately 96 per cent of ParentsNext participants [are] expected to be women, including around 10,000 Indigenous women'. Despite being described as a 'support service for parents of children under the age of six', 'eligible' Parenting Payment recipients are subjected to a suite of reporting requirements and mandated 'activities' including playgroup, swimming lessons, and children's storytime. If the parent misses appointments, fails to enter into a 'participation plan' or participate in the mandated activities, then they may lose their Parenting Payments.

Many women have reported the draconian nature of the program, and the difficulty of compliance. One woman posted on social media that she was forced to attend 'activities' in the week after she had given birth. She was refused an exemption, and if she had failed to attend, would risk losing her payment. The program is currently the subject of a Senate inquiry.

While it is desirable to offer support to single parents concerning their future study or employment, mandating a process involving compulsory attendance requirements in exchange for a Parenting Payment is a form of control, rather than support. That it is imposed on a group comprised principally of single mothers is no mistake.

The single mother has long been characterised by society as a financial burden. Historically, the able-bodied have been expected to work. The Poor Laws in various iterations over the centuries in England provided a system of support for the poor at parish level. Those who were able to work but could not find work would be sent to the workhouse. Within this system, a single mother and her children would become a burden on the parish and there was therefore an incentive within the community to ascertain the father of the child so that he, not the community, would be responsible for their welfare.

In a similar vein, the ParentsNext program positions the contemporary single mother as a burden on the state pending her integration into the paid workforce. The government keeps tabs on her via the mandatory reporting process and seeks to control her mothering by demanding she attend 'activities' with her children, in exchange for the state's largesse. These compulsory activities in a way seem to be a modern-day version of attendance at the workhouse — an institution through which the state would hold the poor accountable for their contribution of labour to society.

 

"Recognising our interdependence demands that society value mothering. For mothers not in the paid workforce, it also means affording genuine support that upholds women's dignity and autonomy to make decisions in the best interests of themselves and their family."

 

Confusingly, not all mothering is construed as a burden. John Howard's famous 'white picket fence' view of Australia preferred women to stay at home as the cornerstone of the family. Tony Abbott opined about the housewives of Australia at home doing their ironing. The tax system, and notably the system of family trusts, is set up to support income distribution within a family. These families, however, involve a married couple — the preferred institutional setting for motherhood — and not a single mother.

The rationale behind programs such as ParentsNext is the so-called 'mutual obligation'. Through sleight of hand, recent Australian governments have twisted the social contract into the imposition of individual responsibility on each citizen to provide for themselves. Providing for ourselves is not a bad goal, but it omits two crucial realities.

The first is our interdependence as humans. None of us exists in isolation. During our lives we need care, including financial support — as infants, as the infirm, as the aged. And, as we take on caring roles, we in turn need care. As a society, we will be called upon to support each other from time to time and to varying degrees.

The second is the structural or institutional positioning of women as dependents. The persistent wage gap, whether from feminised work or discrimination in the workplace, lower superannuation, or greater time spent in unpaid caring work, together mean that women often find themselves in financially precarious situations. Expectations of a redistribution of income within marriage prop up the structures of dependence while at the same time may also be necessary to support women financially.

In the case of mothers, particularly while their children are pre-schoolers, the question of care and managing the family is paramount — doubly so for single mothers. Recognising our interdependence demands that society value mothering. For mothers not in the paid workforce, it also means affording genuine support that upholds women's dignity and autonomy to make decisions in the best interests of themselves and their family.

Where government takes this responsibility, the true meaning of the social contract is revealed. There is no mutual obligation under the social contract: mothers already contribute to society through their reproductive and caring labour. Instead, the mandate of government arises from society itself. The government's legitimacy is borne from its capacity to facilitate our mutual care and protection. ParentsNext, through measures that control women rather than establishing their autonomy, fails this basic test.

 

 

Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Main image: Getty Creative

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, single mothers, Parenting Payment

 

 

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Existing comments

Good coverage but still missed a key point:In May last year, Adam Creighton, economics editor at The Australian and hardly a left-winger, headlined in The Australian: “Be honest about unemployment”. He said that when the underemployed (those who cannot find enough paid work) and those only marginally attached to the labour force are added to the unemployed, it comes to over 3.37 million, or 23% of working-age Australians. Those 3.37 million were competing for only 170,000 advertised jobs that month. Given this what is the point of the program other than to divert attention away from the truth?
Marcus L'Estrange | 01 March 2019


This slavish following of Reganesque and Clintonesque US notions of personal responsibility, biasesd against single parents, is appaling. Wake up Australia ! There is an election coming. Return to values respecting all children , all parents , all individuals. How can a country prosper when it condems any group to official neglect. Enough of selfish politics. Raise the revenue to pay for an equitable society again.Have a look at Scandanavia, New Zealand and see that it can be done, and prosperity and life satisfaction are not lost but enhanced.
jpb | 02 March 2019


Single mothers have in the most part had to struggle as have a lot of other parents, however one major factor occurred in the Gillard Government which had a very adverse affect on single parents and it was the remodelling of the single parents pension. This action which was negotiated by Bill Shorten and supported by Tony Abbott saved the budget about $170M per year. It had a draconian result for single parents. The ideology behind it was flawed, destructive, hurtful and impractical - many were placed into hardships they would never recover from. We now have 1.1M children living below the poverty line. So much for fairness and assisting those to better themselves so they can be included in society and not excluded from it.
Brian Goodall | 02 March 2019


When you say 'single mothers' Kate, presumably you mean the term in a generic sense to include 'single fathers' (i.e. abandoned fathers). Never mind all problems will disappear when Labor win the next election. There'll be no more injustice; the climate will be saved; no refugee problem; affordable housing for all; power bills will all but disappear; perhaps an LGBTIQ parade every week; one electronic media service (the ABC- we're almost there now).
bb | 04 March 2019


Brian Goodall's comment was both knowledgeable and perceptive. 'Social problems' often don't just simply arise, they are created wittingly or unwittingly by people in power. It is a common practice these days, on 'economic grounds', to shift the burden of care for those such as single mothers from the public purse to the already overstretched charitable sector. Meanwhile, we have politicians retiring on six figure pensions for life and bank executives and others in similar positions getting massive bonuses. Where will this lead to long term? A much more unjust and inequitable society with all the attendant social problems.
Edward Fido | 04 March 2019


Brian Goodall, the actions of Julia Gillard et al extended the work done by John Howard and Kevin Andrews in 2006. The Liberal Party in that year removed the availability of Parenting Payment to sole parents whose youngest child was 8 years or older. Previously, the cut-off had been 16 years of age. Howard and Andrews grandfathered the new arrangements for those already receiving Parenting Payment, so the changes did not apply to them at that time. Julia Gillard removed the grandfathering arrangement in a fell swoop. Her move affected 84,000 sole parents (nearly always mothers) and their children. At the same time as it refashioned Parenting Payment, the Howard Government refashioned the Child Support Scheme to ensure that payers earning above average wages (nearly always fathers) had monies payable for their children's upkeep capped at a substantially lower level than before. The loss of the availability of Parenting Payment and a reduction in Child Support monies payable created a double-whammy effect for sole parents, reducing their household incomes, in some cases, dramatically. For illustration: for a family with three dependent children and a payer in an upper-earning pay scale, the reduction in household income for the payee's home was, after the dual reforms, in the vicinity of $17,000 a year.
BPLF | 05 March 2019


No, bb, the statistics are that the overwhelming majority of single parents in this situation are women.
Aurelius | 12 March 2019


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