Australia’s social security system is failing single mother families

In July this year, we surveyed child and family services practitioners in Victoria who work directly with single mothers and their children. We asked workers how social security policies affected families, particularly those with a sole parent.

The results are staggering. Our safety net is failing.

The survey of 169 practitioners found:

  • 63 per cent had worked with one or more single mothers who had experienced a payment suspension
  • 15 per cent were aware of a family or families who had opted out of the social security system without securing another means of income
  • 78 per cent believed payment rates to be insufficient, or barely sufficient to meet basic needs and provide an adequate standard of living
  • For some single mothers it is necessary to stay with or re-connect with a violent partner rather than struggle alone to meet family needs with minimal and highly conditional financial support.

Of the 739,000 children in Australia living in poverty, 39 per cent are in a lone parent household. Rates of poverty among lone parent households have increased as compliance requirements have been extended and eligibility rules have tightened.

Just over half (52 per cent) of all households receiving Parenting Payment are living in poverty. This increases to 55 per cent for those on Newstart.

“Most of our clients present with family violence issues, issues around secure housing and inadequate income for daily living. Often women are driving cars they can’t afford to service or have repaired; they speak of being unable to afford clothes for children, educational costs, food, utility bills. Mothers go without daily necessities such as food to ensure basic care for their children. Secure and affordable housing is the biggest issue single mothers as well as very basic cost of living issues”.

Poverty and the high levels of stress that accompany it affect a parent’s mental wellbeing, parenting capacity and decision making. For children, living in poverty can increase the likelihood of stressful experiences that affect a child’s developing brain architecture, increasing the risk of mental health problems in later life.

“When the main caregiver is under such pressure, it disrupts connection, attachment and the capacity for them to meet a child’s holistic needs i.e. time spent on the phone or at appointments for Centrelink are extensive, and take the parent away from their ability to engage the child in learning and play experiences. Increased stress impacts emotional availability”.

Poverty caused and exacerbated by welfare conditionality and low payment rates poses significant challenges for state-funded child and family services and the parents and children they support. Working with families to promote the safety and wellbeing of children is made difficult when social security policies trap families in a cycle of poverty and disadvantage, increase stress and place pressure on mother-child relationships.

“Almost all the time with the single mothers we support is spent focusing on meeting basic human needs and not on higher goals such as further education, parenting strategies or addressing their children’s emotional needs”.

These findings are consistent with recent research showing increases in the use of food banks and emergency relief, and rising cost of living pressures including significant housing stress.

Keeping people in poverty is not the answer. Australia can do better for our children.

The Centre is calling for an urgent and immediate increase to social security payments that families rely on and an end to payment suspensions and punitive compliance requirements.

Read an overview of findings here and the full paper here.

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