Yesterday a woman wrote a strong and well-argued essay in On Line Opinion about the Gillard government’s action in reducing the single-parent benefit. She described her life ten years ago as a single mother with an eight-year-old daughter, living in a country town, but able, with a combination of part-time work, family benefit and her own family’s support, to give her daughter and herself a decent life: no frills, but comfort.
Things have changed drastically, she wrote. ‘Under the new “Fair Incentives to Work” legislation all recipients of Parenting Payment Single (PPS) whose children have turned 8 have been moved to the basic unemployment benefit “Newstart”, more commonly known as “the dole”. This has affected around 100,000 sole parents, almost all of whom are women. In real terms it means a loss of between $60 to $110 per week for families who are already under the poverty line.’
The rest of her essay consisted of some examples of the cost this legislative change is having on the quality of life of mothers and children, and an argument that our society still thinks of parenting in terms of a ‘breadwinner’, and a social contract in which sex is supplied in return for care, housing and the appurtenances of a civilised life. I thought it a good case, and puzzled over what I thought about the issue myself.
The comments that followed her essay really shook me. Many attacked the woman for having lived off taxpayers’ money when she received a benefit, and too many of the comments, in my opinion, were unreasonably angry. They seemed to come from men, and plainly she had touched a raw spot for some of her readers. That pushed me even more into thinking about the whole issue as a question of social policy.
My initial response is that it is one of those in the too-hard basket, and I think she’s right in seeing the Government’s action as an almost despairing reaction to the growing numbers receiving the single-parent benefit, as well, of course, as a way of saving money and helping the Treasurer produce a budget in May that is not too badly unbalanced.
I don’t want to see children living in poverty. I do think that our society, the Australian nation-state, ought to look after its most vulnerable, and mothers left on their own with small infants are particularly vulnerable. I also think that making a baby is one of the most important things any of us ever does, because a baby is going to be another adult member of our society, and we all want that adult to be a productive, caring, responsible and creative addition to our society.
What is the probably of that outcome’s occurring if the infant grows up in a state of relative poverty, missing out on good food, good care, good preparation for school and the kind of support and encouragement that ought to come from a stable family environment? If the mother works full-time the infant will miss out on attention from the only parent it has. If the mother decides to care for the child and not work, she will have very little income. I haven’t done the sums myself, but a widely-quoted figure is that it costs $150,000 to look after a child until it becomes an adult. No one is going to be able to do that on even the old benefit, let alone the new one.
Our current social ethic is that babies are good, and having children is good, and that relationships that produce babies are going to last. I have come to think that all these values ought to be heavily qualified. The last one is plainly silly: about half of all marriages end in divorce, and more people live today in ‘relationships’ that aren’t legal marriages but produce their own share of babies.
The woman who wrote the essay claimed that one quarter of all Australian babies are in single-parent families. When I was doing some work on this issue a few years ago I came to the view that 300,000 children could be defined that way. Either way, these are large numbers, and they point to a basic and difficult problem.
I will agree with her that what the government has done has plainly worsened the quality of life both for the mothers (there are fathers in this situation as well) and for the children they care for. And whatever we do about dealing with this problem right now, I also think that the values that we place on having children and the realities of having them in contemporary Australia are simply at odds.
I have thought so for some years, and I think it is a problem that we by and large ignore, until it happens to us, or to one of our children. The writer saw it as a consequence of of our placing high the rights of the individual to do what he or she wants to do, and well above the responsibilities that we owe to others. I think she is right there, too.
What is my answer? I don’t have one, but I’ll keep thinking about it and working away at a suggestion. What’s yours?