This is not a question of, ‘whoops, what happened there?’ This has been the effect of a sustained attack through policies and cuts targeted at single-parent families.
That’s what Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Services told the ParentsNext Senate hearing last week. ParentsNext is a program that requires people to attend compulsory activities every week — say, story time or playgroup. If they fail to do this or fail to report it within a strict time frame their parenting payment is suspended.
Australia is party to many United Nations human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The covenant contains a right to social security, which countries owe to everyone. It requires countries to guarantee that the rights in the covenant are upheld without discrimination. And yet, sole parents (90% of whom are women) are disproportionately affected by cuts to welfare, going back a decade and implemented by both sides of politics.
Having resisted introducing paid maternity leave, the Howard government passed the Welfare to Work act, where new single-parent families with their youngest child turning eight were put onto Newstart. After July 1 2005, many parents with children over the age of six were required to undertake 30 hours of paid work per fortnight. Many single parents were moved from this payment to the less generous Newstart Allowance once their youngest child turned eight.
Single parent families were excluded from parenting payment increases afforded to others.
This neoliberal approach to social security that started under the Howard government became the path for subsequent Labor and Coalition governments. Beth Goldblatt, Associate Professor at the University of Technology Sydney, noted the introduction of harsh penalties for breaches, coupled with an “overtly ideological campaign aimed at shifting the notion of welfare as a citizenship right to a conditional entitlement based on ‘mutual obligation’”. In Law and Poverty in Australia, she wrote:
… the Labor government refused to increase the low unemployment payment (known as Newstart) despite growing poverty. One of the most controversial measures of that government under the leadership of Julia Gillard was the cuts to the benefits of a group of single parents in 2012. This group had been promised they could stay on parenting benefits (a higher amount than Newstart) if they had made claims before July 2006. The 2012 changes removed this entitlement and with the lower income test for Newstart, many parents lost their benefits entirely or lost a sizeable part of their income. The changes, which took effect in January 2013, saw 63,000 single parents immediately affected with a longer-term impact on 147,000 parents. The vast majority of single parents affected (95%) are women. Advocacy groups argued that the proposed cuts were a violation of the right to social security and the right to equality of women and children.
Single parents who had been claiming Parenting Payment before the Welfare to Work changes had previously been exempted from the requirement to move to Newstart, but in 2013 these changes were extended to all single parents.
The Federal budget saw a freezing of family payments for single-parent families; a cut to the parent education supplement; an attempted cut to the energy supplement affecting single-parent families; and changes to childcare, negatively affecting the lowest income families in terms of access to childcare.
From January 1 this year, single parents need third-party verification. Getting income support now means single parents finding someone who can verify that they are not lying and are actually single.