December 4, 2012

The single parent trap

Dear Julia Gillard,

I am one of the many single parents who will be forced onto Newstart Allowance on January 1, 2013. 

I am the sole parent of two children, 17 and 10, and I am currently in my fourth year of a psychology degree, something I have worked extremely hard to achieve whilst raising two children on my own. However, given that I will soon be forced to live on $533 a fortnight, (which is less than the cost of my rent) I must accept that I will not be able to complete the final year of my degree and that I must instead go out and try to find a job, any job, for which I am overqualified, that will enable us all to survive. 

As well as losing $122 a week of my parenting payment, I will also lose the $64 a fortnight education supplement that is supposed to help with the costs of text books. That $64 might seem irrelevant to someone like you, and granted it isn't much of an incentive to enrol at university, but it has enabled me to buy the ridiculously overpriced text- books that are not included in the ridiculously overpriced school fees.

I'm not sure if you have given any real thought as to what these new cost saving measures will mean to women like me, and if you have then you should be ashamed of yourself as a Prime Minister and as a woman. 

I live in a rural area where there are very few jobs available and even less that will employ staff solely during school hours. Even if I could afford it, there is no after school care at my daughter's school and the bus does not take her all the way home, which means that I must meet her at the bus stop in the middle of a busy highway at 3.25 pm. 

She is 10 years old and not old enough to walk the 25 minute walk along a bustling, two-lane highway. It's bad enough that I will be forced to give up my studies in order to house and feed my children, but in areas where unemployment and rents are high, women like me will have no choice but to live on the Newstart Allowance and to go without basic necessities. 

In my case, I will need to move into more affordable housing which may prove impossible given that the cheapest three bedroom house in a 20 km radius of my children's school is $300 a week. Sharing a room with my children in a one bedroom flat or pitching a tent in the Byron Bay caravan-park may actually be the only alternative.

How is that you can justify giving single people with no dependant children the same amount of money that will be given to sole parents with 1, 2, 3, 4 children? Do you have any idea what it costs to raise a child?  My children have had to go without many things that two parent families can afford and there have been many times over the course of the last 4 years where I have seriously considered dropping out of uni to take a waitressing or cleaning job in order to meet the weekly demands. 

I have persevered because I want to show my children that education is important and that if you work hard you can achieve anything. Thanks to you, that decision has now been made for me and the blood, sweat and tears have all been a massive waste of time. I'll be sending you my HECS bill if that's okay.

You recently spoke in the Parliament about the tyranny of sexism and misogyny. 

On Q&A last fortnight, Bill Shorten also spoke about a sexist and misogynistic Coalition and he explained how Labor are working to empower and support women in the workforce. And yet under your new legislation, women who would otherwise have had the opportunity to get an education and contribute something of value to the workforce will now be forced into low wage, low skill jobs just to survive. 

Freezing women out of education opportunities because they will be forced to work full time in order to supplement Newstart Allowance is sexist and misogynistic and depriving those women of the pensioner education supplement just worsens the blow.

Mr. Shorten defended the new legislation by saying that women should be empowered to rejoin the workforce. He said that the best way we can support women is to return them to work. What he failed to acknowledge is that under the current legislation, which was introduced by John Howard, single parents are required to engage in 15 hours of paid work per week to meet their parenting payment requirements. 

Those of us who are studying full time are exempt (and rightfully so) from meeting those requirements. The difference between the current legislation and Labor's proposed changes is that sole parents are able to strike a balance between work and family. They are able to achieve an education that will better enable them to return to the workforce in a meaningful way and to earn a good income that will allow them to support their families. More importantly, they are on track to break the cycle of welfare altogether.

Forcing sole parents onto Newstart will not tackle the problem of welfare dependancy, in fact it will only cause greater long term socio-economic problems. Parenting payment currently enables sole parents to earn $167 a fortnight before they lose 40 cents in the dollar. Newstart decreases that threshold to $31.50 a week. If you genuinely want ‘women’ to get back to work then why make it damn near impossible for them to do so? 

You should be raising the single parenting payment to elevate single parents (predominately women) out of the poverty cycle and give more support to single parents undertaking study - not less. And you should be making exemptions for women living in rural areas where child care is scarce and work opportunities virtually non existent. If women are not able to find work under your new legislation then they will be forced into dire living situations through no fault of their own. Which leads me to my next question - where exactly are all of these new jobs coming from? Because there has certainly been no mention in the Parliament of that. 

It may surprise you to learn that most women do not choose to become single parents. But no matter how hard it gets and no matter how much we might struggle, we hold our heads high and raise our children without question or complaint and with absolute love and dedication. So thank you for your passionate speech in the Parliament and for sticking it to Tony Abbott on issues like sexism and women's rights. 

But just remember that it was you who took away these women's rights; women who already do it tougher than most, women who deserve the chance to raise their children without fear of homelessness and starvation, women who deserve a chance at an education, women who are raising the next generation, women who don't deserve to be punished just because they are women, and women whom your party is supposed to represent.


josephine leigh said...

Hello Misha. It is a disgrace that Gillard's Labour government is throwing so many obstacles on your path to a better future. I didn't vote for Gillard, I voted for Rudd, and though we can't be sure, I feel that Rudd would not have made these decisions. You are right to say that she, as a woman, should be ashamed of herself for hobbling the efforts of single parents to improve their lot in life. I am a woman of 55 with mental health issues, in receipt of a disability payment, and also studying at tertiary level for the first time. I will finish my certificate next semester and hope to begin a BA in psychology at mid-year intake. I find it difficult to get by - I can hardly imagine what it's like for you, even though I, too, brought my daughter up alone. I know what it's like to want to show your children the value of study and improving their prospects by hard work. I know the frustration of jumping through the hoops to get scant resources. I also know the frustration of listening to patronising comments like those made by 'anonymous' - I'm going to take a punt and guess it's a man who takes the default position of thinking women need to run to their children's father, parents or community instead of wanting to stand up for themselves and their children. I'm not sure which planet 'anonymous' lives on, but here on Earth life is rarely that simple, and sometimes gets very messy indeed when you have no support systems and your government disenfranchises you. And 'anonymous' seems to think you're wasting your time getting a degree. No wonder 'anon' didn't leave a name but just shat on your hard work and sacrifices made to better yourself and consequently your children. So much for equality - we're still damned if we do, and damned if we don't. I'm angry about this and I don't even know what to suggest. John Birmingham points out that you haven't had any luck getting your letter published - can I suggest that you go to the following facebook pages that may be able to help: Destroy the Joint (initiated after the execrable Alan Jones declared that women in government were 'destroying the joint') and Anne Summers, who has just published her own news service based on established fact and not opinion - she has a long background in media, and a feminist leaning. I also know the editor of a local independant newspaper here in Brisneyland and I'll ask him if he has any connections that can get your letter out there. Regards, Josephine Leigh (also on facebook).

Anonymous said...


I am a single parent in a regional area, raising an 8 and an 11 year old.

Thank you for putting what I've been thinking into words more reasoned and well ordered than I can manage. My response is mostly a wordless cry of anguish, a primal howl.

restaurantpuppy said...

the system doesn't seem to handle part-time student single parents very well. austudy is ok while it lasts if you qualify/ can handle the fulltime study workload. since all students are either paying fees upfront or accruing a massive debt, any taxpayer income support for them will probably be eventually repaid. the problem is the bureaucratic brick wall between austudy and newstart. even if yr study is recognised in yr newstart employment pathway plan as an approved activity, you still have to lie about looking for work, unless you somehow persuade someone to exempt you from the activity test after assessing the probability of yr degree leading to future employment. i have heard case managers suggest such potential flexibility in the past, but have never met anyone who has managed to make such an arrangement stick. you would want to get it in writing on a one-year contract, i reckon.

Lily Mae Martin said...

This is heartbreaking! I can't imagine what it must be like knowing that you have to stop your course that you have clearly been working so hard for... and with two children!
And yes - where are these jobs? What do they expect people to actually do? Butchering this is - butchering.

Misha Sim said...

Thank-you for the comments everyone. I am working to get this issue into the public agenda because nobody in the media wants to talk about it. Clearly this legislation has not been thought through. It's inevitable that those of us currently studying will end up staying on welfare for a lot longer under the new legislation. Even if we can manage part time studies, that still means an extra two or three years on benefits when we otherwise would have been in full time employment. Forcing women out of education is the one thing I cannot stomach.

Jayne said...

*Applauds*. I wrote a post on this back when it was announced in October as well. I am a single parent raising an 8 and 13 year old and am a full time uni student, about to commence my third year of a 4th year degree. I am furious at the punitive measures enforced upon single parents, especially those of us trying to study to better our children and our pown lifes, and break the cycle of welfare dependency for good. It is a total travesty and I am so incredibly angry about Macklin's most recent idiotic statements. I hope you are somehow able to finish your degree.

Blaktop said...

Very succinctly put Misha. Unfortunately you and others like you are "collateral damage" in "war" against what is perceived to be the bludging, welfare class. Also unfortunately, this will be a popular move amongst those who a/ aren't affected by this and b/ object to their tax dollars supporting welfare recipients.

My ex-wife did something similar to you (a Tafe diploma of Aquaculture, not a uni degree, but it still took 3 years).....but she received the help and assistance that you have been entitled to up until this new move (plus assistance from me). I can't imagine how she would have got by under this new arrangement.

All the best in pushing it further.

Jac said...

I lived this for a year and a half, starting two years ago. I was not "grandfathered in" on Parenting Payment because in addition to parenting three children, I was caring for my chronically ill husband so I qualified for Carer Payment. When my youngest child turned eight a few months after my husband died, I was put on Parenting Payment completely without warning. And I became ineligible for Pensioner Education Supplement. Overall, my household income dropped by 20%.

I challenge anyone who thinks that the reduction in benefits is not a big deal because it is not a huge amount of money, to contemplate suffering a 20% reduction in their income. And then I challenge them to try to imagine that they were on a bare, subsistence income to begin with.

I've railed at the pointless cruelty of driving the most vulnerable members of society even deeper into poverty and despair. I've ranted about the bizarre assertion that the drop in income is going to prompt single parents to join the workforce. You're right; the jobs don't exist. The affordable childcare does not exist either.

I was job searching to my utmost before the income cut and there were no jobs that I could do (short of prostitution, and while I don't look down on sex workers generally, I dare anyone to call me a "job snob" for being unprepared to engage in that very confronting line of work). And once my income dropped, I could hardly look for work at all. All I could see was that I would lose the house (my parents helped me get mortgage on a house after my husband died, because renting is nigh on impossible for sole parents, employed or not) and lose my mind, and even my children.

It was not long before I could not pay my bills. Some days my children missed school because I had to choose between buying food and buying petrol to take them to school. I started going to a charity once a month for the tiny amount of food-aid they could offer. I failed a semester of University (Studying IT part time) because my old home computer broke down and I could not access the computers at Uni due to transport and childcare costs. I received financial counselling and assistance from obviously overworked and overstretched community and family assistance organisations. It helped, but it was not enough. There was no work to be had, and no way not to end up homeless on the government benefits I was receiving.

My breakdown led to a diagnosis of a condition which entitled me to Disability Support Pension, so I am now in a better financial situation.

I was outraged and horrified when I heard that the government had opted to sacrifice sole parent families on the altar of the almighty budget surplus (now defunct!). I don't see the sense in it. There are no jobs. There is no cheaper way for vulnerable families to live than they already are living. Or at least, not one which is compatible with gaining employment.

I don't know how the government sees this working out. I was lucky; I have cheap accommodation and while I have a disability, I have the wit and energy it took to eventually track down the diagnosis I need in order to receive DSP. What of people who are less fortunate? What of the parents who are paying rent, and who have no way out of the poverty they have been dropped in?

I expect that the kinds of community services and charities who helped me will be overrun by desperate sole parents. I expect that rates of depression and suicide will go up, as will rates of domestic violence, as parents in violent relationships will suffer staying with their violent partner for financial support because they will come to recognise that they can't survive on benefits.

I also expect that the life outcomes of children who are raised in such poverty will be poor; who will bet against there being even higher rates of depression, crime, drug use and early pregnancy among the kids of unemployed sole parents in a decade or less than there are today?

Dylan Williams said...

Oh Misha, you wrote that perfectly! Thank you for explaining it all so well. I too am a sole parent who studies full time and works part time. I have been on Newstart 2 times in my life. Once after losing my job after having a car accident (that payment resulted in my family of 4 children becoming homeless for 2 years) and then a year ago after losing my next job. It was then I knew I had to get out of unskilled labour and study. I now am proud I achieved MOST of my course this year (I missed the last 2 weeks of class as I had no money to get there, so the important exams meant I wasn't competetant as far as paperwork goes... missing class was the result of struggling on Newstart for a year) I still have 5 parts of my course to make up next semester on top of starting the next certificate. But, it looks unlikely I can afford to continue my studies, and my current job I started only weeks ago depends on continuing on (they expect it). Regardless of that - I am about to be homeless as I have used up all my resources on moving money about, and I will be living in a tent.. this is not a safe place to leave children alone, so there goes my job and studies. How they can say that this payment helps break welfare dependency is beyond me. My children missed over a month of school from me not having money to take them or feed them. They are falling behind in their education, I fell behind, and now we are homeless. It is shameful how this country is treating the most vulnerable hard working Australians there are. We are over worked, under fed and still attend our children's needs.
Anyway enough of my rant. I just wanted to say thank you to Misha for what she wrote.
Regards Mish Lee.

Amanda said...

Thank You for your amazingly well written letter. It explains the situation so clearly.

I have shared a link to it on my facebook page because I think more people should read it.

I don't have anything particularly relevant from my blog to share so I have added the URL for a blog article I wrote about the things I missed because I voluntarily surrendered my driver's licence due to fatigue. Trust me, it was more relevant than my blog article about a lady chupachup riding a horse.

Once again, Thank You for your eloquently written, well articulated argument.

Yours sincerely, someone who might have been able to finish their 4 year University Degree (Bachelor of Speech Pathology) if the Government had thought about the people.