One of the great legacies of the feminists who came before us is choice. It affects us differently throughout our lives as women; when we become mothers, we are able to choose to stay home and parent, work part-time or return to work full-time, and move between these options.
By and large our choices are respected and some supports are available to enable us to do so. Undoubtedly, we need more affordable childcare, more flexible and secure work opportunities, and more support to re-skill and gain qualifications, but significant progress has been made over the past 50 years.
Caring for pre-school aged children is essential and indeed inevitable; whether it is by a parent, grandparent or paid childcare educator, someone needs to provide this care. It is here that our society continues to fall short, in the undervaluing of the unpaid care (and indeed the paid childcare) provided to children, largely by women.
However, for parents who need financial support to provide care to children under school age, we do have a social security safety net in the form of government benefits (Parenting Payment Couple and Parenting Payment Single), although it’s not enough to quite make ends meet.
Australian governments of both persuasions have undermined these rights over the past 20 years through a range of ‘Welfare to Work’ initiatives. They position a job as ‘the best form of welfare’, as if there is a plethora of secure work options for women with children that will fit with the family responsibilities that cannot be defaulted on.
This is a major barrier to financial security for many families, but in particular for single mother who carry the full load of caring responsibilities and thus must find work that fits around them. Many single mothers have been forced into casual work to manage their juggle, which has had a devastating impact on their financial wellbeing.
The latest in the raft of Welfare to Work initiatives is the ParentsNext program, which has caused a huge furore since being rolled out nationally last July. ParentsNext is a Federal government program with the stated aim of helping “eligible parents to plan and prepare for employment by the time their children go to school”. However, the program does not account for the pressures and choices parents face, especially with young children.
Eligible parents are those with children aged 6 months to 6 years who are receiving government benefits and haven’t earned any income in the past 6 months (which is hardly surprising when you have a small child to care for). Many of the women targeted are Indigenous, early school leavers or in areas defined as having higher disadvantage, which often means there are fewer work options available.
Meeting this eligibility means that you are forced to jump through hoops – attending meetings and activities which may or may not increase your employability – or have your government benefits suspended or cut. At the same time, other families around the country continue to receive the same benefits without having to undertake any ‘mutual obligation activities’, simply because they need the financial support at this point in their lives.
Since the program was rolled out nationally in July last year, 75,000 parents, most of whom are women with a large majority of single mothers, have been forced to participate. Of these, 1 in 5 have had their payments suspended, over 15,000 mothers of small children.
The Council of Single Mothers and their Children (CSMC), together with the National Council of Single Mothers, surveyed over 200 participants of ParentsNext, and a few of the representative comments are included here.
The results made clear the widespread misinformation provided to participants, the terrible administration flaws in the national roll out, and the pointlessness of many of the activities parents were told to undertake (such as taking children to swimming lessons or library story time) – with threat of suspension of their income if they didn’t attend and report doing so each week.
We believe that support for parents to enter or re-enter the workforce is essential; however, it should be when they want it, completely voluntary, and obviously genuinely helpful. Unbelievable as it may be, ParentsNext doesn’t really help most parents to become more job ready or give them the support needed to find a job that will really improve their financial situation.
‘I was told I need to put my child in child care even know I can’t afford it and if I was to put my child in care I wouldn’t be able to afford food for us. I will also be going back to work when my child is at school. They also told me I need to study but I will need to pay for the course myself and as I can’t afford it, I don’t know how I will do that and I have a career to go back to and don’t require other training.’ CSMC survey respondent, March 2019
Railroading parents into taking any minimum wage work available by making receiving benefits as unworkable as possible does not improve their financial situation – they will continue to be living under the poverty line or in financial duress. All it achieves is to reduce the cost to the Federal government, which is then picked up by state-based and local services providing emergency relief, food aid and support with children’s education costs.
At the heart of this issue is that the key to our parenting and work choices is that they are choices – we made them on the basis of the supports we have in our relationship and broader family and taking into account the financial benefit that the work available may provide us. Choosing to care full-time for your own pre-school aged children should not be a viable choice only for high income families or women with a partner who can be the family’s provider. Nor should we be forced to outsource care for our children to paid childcare, which contributes to GDP, instead of undertaking it ourselves, which does not.
The mandatory nature of the ParentsNext program implies that low income parents do not have the skills and insight to make such decisions for themselves – to know when and how to seek work, expand their skills or pursue qualifications they believe will improve the long-term financial situation of their families. Many of the families subject to ParentsNext are facing complex challenges in their lives but that does not mean they will not seek out a genuinely beneficial voluntary program when the time is right for them. The uptake of the various benefits available to support study (such as Pension Education Supplement) is proof that they will.
Participation in ParentsNext has done significant damage to women’s self-esteem, wellbeing and parenting. The stories of damage and distress told to the recent Senate Committee hearing would shock most members of public. These womens’ experiences of program participation underpin the widespread support among the community sector to immediately halt the program. Indeed, the Senate Committee’s report delivered on 30 March stated that the program is causing participants “anxiety, stress and harm”.
‘ParentsNext has added nothing to my life except constant anxiety that I will be punished and my children will suffer. The program does not support me in any way.’ CSMC survey respondent March 2019
The response of the current Government has been to propose to penalise noncompliant providers and reduce some of the administration burden of participants. This is not enough! Fiddling with the edges cannot fix a program that has fundamental issues in the underlying principles – including that low income parents cannot make their own informed choices about securing work and must be forced to comply with activities for their own betterment.
Parents needs support to enter or re-enter the workforce when they’re ready, and in the form they choose.
‘The program at best might be helpful if my youngest was in preschool or kindergarten and I could begin study or work which I already have planned. Instead of enjoying my daughter’s younger years and happily planning for our future it has created a level of shame and potential threat to our lives for being a single parent and receiving benefits.’ CSMC survey respondent March 2019
I am asking politicians across the spectrum to consider the choices they have made for their own families; the supports they rely on, much assisted by their level of income; and for some, the need to leave politics due to the toll in takes on families.
I ask you to publicly acknowledge that ParentsNext should be halted immediately and a new voluntary program co-created with the intended beneficiaries; one that will genuinely support parents to find suitable work, re-skill or study, and have a real prospect of improving the financial situation of their family.
Jenny Davidson is CEO of the Council of Single Mothers and their Children, a non-profit organisation that provides specialist support services for single mother families and advocates on their behalf.