Welfare to Work is failing single mothers

29 October 2018

Today we launch our latest research “Outside systems control my life” The experience of single mothers on Welfare to Work at the 2018 ACOSS National Conference. It examines the lived experience of 26 single mothers subject to the provisions of the Welfare to Work policy and puts a human face to this reform.

“Welfare to Work has increased people’s obligations to receive income support,” said Stella Avramopoulos, CEO Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand. “Policy changes were framed as a way to raise employment participation, self-reliance and financial security with little regard for the challenges that families, especially single-parent families, face.”

Our research shows Welfare to Work is not achieving its aims and, in most cases, is increasing women’s financial insecurity.

“None of the women in our study were assisted with finding work, except one person who took on a short-term, part-time role,” added Ms Avramopoulos. “Jobactive providers were unable to link women with employment that matched their experience and skills or support their long-term career goals and aspirations.

“Nearly all participants reported having their payments cut due to negligence or poor communication between their jobactive provider and Centrelink, or due to inconsistent policy interpretation. Amanda, a single mother of two, said, ‘I’m always on the brink of being cut off because they keep changing their minds about whether I’m meeting my obligations or not.’”

Several participants reported that their caring responsibilities were not understood or valued by jobactive providers, particularly in relation to casual and contract work and the difficulty in finding child care. The essential unpaid work of parenting is made invisible, while the system is unable to recognise complex individual circumstances.

The highly punitive nature of Welfare to Work means the single mothers in our study were hypervigilant to ensure they remained compliant. However, this excessive self-policing kept them from attending activities that could improve their long-term financial security such as starting a small business, continuing their education or starting in a part-time position in exchange for the “tick and flick” model of compliance that was imposed on them by their provider.

Ms Avramopoulos said Welfare to Work is situated within a suite of other policies that negatively impact on women. “This includes the difficulties women face in accessing child support payments, their low superannuation balances, the gender pay gap and workplace norms that, for career-oriented positions, expect long hours.”

“Placing tight restrictions on welfare payments is bad economics,” Ms Avramopoulos said. “This research mirrors findings in the UK that show welfare conditionality is largely ineffective. The little savings the Australian Government makes by reducing income support is lost through an expensive administrative system ($7.3 billion over five years) that delivers poor job outcomes, increases the poverty rate of the most vulnerable people, impacts mental health and creates serious barriers to employment and social connection.”

“A more effective model would be to pay bonuses directly to job seekers when they attain a significant milestone and to ensure income support payments are sufficient to cover basic costs. Raising the rate of both Newstart and Parent Payment Single, and indexing them to the minimum wage, would do more towards breaking the cycle of poverty for single mother-headed households.”

This model is supported by Terese Edwards, CEO National Council of Single Mothers & Their Children.

“Some women go without eating while others rely on food banks or family to meet their essential costs,” said Ms Edwards. “Only 4 out of the 26 women interviewed for this report would be able to raise $2,000 in an emergency, and this money would come from borrowing from family or selling assets.

“Welfare conditionality is bad for many groups of people, but worse for single mothers. Changes to income support payments, such as moving single parents from Parenting Payment Single onto Newstart – which occurs under the Welfare to Work policy – have pushed more women into poverty.”

National statistics:
• Single parent families have the highest poverty rates (currently at 32%)
• Most single-parent families are headed by women (82%)
• 60% of these households rely on government income
(source: ACOSS 2018 Poverty Report)

Read the report
Read the women's stories

Contact Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand 0411 478 111