Nightmare on Newstart
5 September 2013 at 9:16 am
In the lead-up to the Federal Election there has been no shortage of policy announcements designed to assist middle income working families but on the need to provide assistance to parents raising children on inadequate welfare payments both sides of politics have been disturbingly quiet says Dr Sarah Wise from Anglicare Victoria.
Right off the bat welfare and advocacy groups remonstrated the Federal Labour Government’s decision to change the eligibility rules for receiving the Parenting Payment, which force parents onto unemployment benefits as their youngest child turns eight (single parents ) and six (parents in couple relationships). Raising children on the Parenting Payment is hard enough. Affected families and the organisations that support them knew the transition to Newstart Allowance would only exacerbate parents’ struggle to provide for themselves and their children.
It was no surprise, therefore, that shortly after the new rules came into effect in January 2013, community service organisations started feeling the effects in increased demand for services. More single mothers were presenting to Anglicare Victoria for food assistance because they had been moved onto Newstart Allowance. Homeless and other crisis services were experiencing a similar thing.
This year Anglicare Victoria’s Hardship Survey showed the real world consequences of Australia’s new punitive welfare-to-work policy. The Mothers on the Margins report released this week showed that mothers seeking assistance from emergency relief services were unable to afford an average of six of the 20 ‘essentials of life’, which include such things as medical treatment, heating in the home and a substantial meal each day.
The proportion of mothers who were unable to meet their children’s needs was appalling. Not surprisingly, mothers on Newstart Allowance (who were disproportionately couple mothers) had the greatest difficulty providing for their children. For example, almost 70% of couple mothers could not afford to enrol their child/ren in a sporting or leisure activity outside school and almost 20% could not afford activities and outings offered during school time.
On the ABC’s Q&A programrecently, single mother June Connell took the issue right up to the Prime Minister. She implored him to “Have a heart and reinstate Parenting Payments”. In response, Prime Minister Rudd gave unemployed parents some hope that the decision would be reversed should Labour be returned to Government (budget permitting).
Individuals and families who need income assistance from the federal Government should not have to plead for payments that enable them to live with dignity and access the essentials of life in modern Australia. Deprivation at a level seen on Newstart Allowance causes suffering and destroys hope that children growing up in jobless households will break the cycle of marginalisation and exclusion. Whatever party is elected on 07 September, they need to have both the humanity and common sense to ensure welfare payments don’t devastate families and their hope for a better future.
We also need our federal politicians to move beyond a singular focus on how much (or how little) welfare recipients should receive, and begin to explore how barriers to employment can be meaningfully addressed. The Mothers on the Margins report shows that significant personal and structural barriers block opportunities for mothers to maintain suitable and secure employment.
Mothers reported an average of more than five separate barriers to work, including health problems, problems with skills and experience and lack of opportunities in the local economy. Above all else, they flagged that the cost and availability of child care was a barrier to paid work. Indeed, it’s hardly an incentive for mothers to trade their government subsidy and time with children for a low wage in unsuitable work when they have to pay child care fees as well.
Only genuine assistance and support for local economies will help parents with limitations and disadvantages move from welfare to a position of self reliance and reduce child poverty in Australia.
About the author: Dr Sarah Wise is Anglicare Victoria's General Manager Policy, Research and Innovation.