Imagine having to get someone else to provide proof you aren’t shagging anyone on a regular basis and that even if you are, you aren't getting financial support. Your own word isn't good enough any more.
That’s what happens to single mothers in Australia if they want to be eligible for welfare.
There’s a lot that goes wrong for single mums in Australia. They already have difficult lives, managing kids, jobs and life on their own. And on top of all that, there are a whole range of compliance tasks in order to get benefits, from signing endless forms to applying for a ridiculous number of jobs, a huge task all on its own.
It’s a simplistic statement by governments that the best way out of poverty is to get a job. That’s not always possible. Yet women are constantly punished for their inability to comply.
It's a miserable life for a single mother on welfare in Australia, so hard that one woman, Juanita McLaren, has decided to take her complaint all the way to the United Nations. She says the way Australia treats single mums breaches human rights and now, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, will be hearing from her directly at a UN Women’s conference in New York next week.
In fact, he will be presenting by her side. Huge honour and some of us might have put that on our credit cards. She had to crowdfund to get there.
McLaren, who has also had to get proof she’s not in a financially-bound relationship in order to be eligible for Newstart, worked full-time when her kids were little. Then her husband, who was the primary carer, left the family and now lives overseas.
“I just hit a wall and headed into casual work because there was always something happening with the kids.”
She had to ditch her part-time studies because she couldn’t manage financially on Newstart even though her studies were a pathway to getting better work.
Benefits were erratic and in one case, took eight weeks to arrive – finally some money arrived on Christmas Eve. She entered the wrong year on a form (who else has mixed up their birth year with the current year?) and was told it couldn’t be corrected over the phone.
It was all the little things on top of the poverty that motivated her to make a complaint.
In some respects, McLaren is fortunate. She’s had steady part-time work for a couple of years now, which is slightly seasonal. She remains registered for Newstart because of the off-season.
But it’s the constant battle with Centrelink, with managing her family and money, with being forced to apply for hopeless work she doesn’t want, that forced McLaren to turn to the UN. So far, it’s the Australian government and the UN in a deadlock about what’s harmful to single mothers.
For years now, Terese Edwards, the CEO of the National Council for Single Mothers, has campaigned for better financial support for her members. Edwards helped McLaren write her complaint, which was the first individual complaint using the optional protocol of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women; and will be at her side when she speaks at the conference.
She says McLaren’s complaint – and the way in which single mothers are treated in general – illuminates what is wrong with our nation.
“We can afford to be so much better in Australia. . . single mothers do so much with few resources. This complaint is really about saying that we have exhausted all our domestic avenues and now we must elevate it to an international setting.”
Edwards believes Alston can use his position to bring attention to the way in which Australia treats single mothers.
“We are not a struggling country. It’s a simplistic statement by governments that the best way out of poverty is to get a job. That’s not always possible. Yet women are constantly punished for their inability to comply.
“No one enjoys going hungry or losing their accommodation. Newstart punishes women who are in precarious work.”
Edwards also reminds me exactly what the money looks like when you are on welfare.
A single parent with one, two or three children gets $748.10 a fortnight from parenting payments. The minute the youngest child turns eight, the single parents gets thrown on to Newstart, which is $579.30 a fortnight.
If only those imaginary, reliable jobs that only operate between 9.30am and 2.30pm actually existed so parents could still get to school drop-off and school pick-up.
Newstart punishes women who are in precarious work.
Cassandra Goldie, the CEO of the Australian Council of Social Services, says single mothers are easy to target and easy to vilify.
She says it’s not just impoverishment that has been relentless, it is the way in which both autonomy and agency have been removed from single mothers in direct contrast to what’s happening in the aged care sector. And she’s not just talking about the ridiculous requirement to get someone else to guarantee your relationship status.
Here’s some shocking news: One in three sole parents and their children are living in poverty according to the latest ACOSS-UNSW Poverty report. In just two years, the rate of poverty amongst unemployed single parents rose from 35 per cent to 59 per cent.
And I wish I could say it would make a difference if we voted for one party or another. I fear it won’t.
Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.