OPINION

Our social security system hurts women with young children

I have never been punished for being a bad mother, for being careless, disorganised. I have been all those at one time or another over three decades. Yet an entire generation of Australian women is being punished for these failings, sold out by a government program seeking to coerce and control women with young children.

What we know: ParentsNext is a scandalous misuse of the powers of those who run social security in this country. The program, designed to make parents work-ready, requires recipients of parenting payments to register for mandatory activities and appointments in order for payments from Centrelink to continue.  If you want to continue getting your payments, you better turn up to your kids’ swimming lessons.

School children take swimming lessons in North Sydney. Photo: Peter Morris

School children take swimming lessons in North Sydney. Photo: Peter Morris

The leading researcher in Australia on social security and human rights, UTS's Beth Goldblatt, says Australia must remove conditions attached to social security and urges a rights-based approach to social security entitlements, neither mandatory nor punitive.

“Social security is an entitlement and an international human right. Governments must stop seeing it as something able to be manipulated and controlled,” she says.

ParentsNext is now the subject of a senate inquiry, the result of a joint referral by Labor and the Greens after tireless campaigning by parents and excellent investigations by The Guardian.

Submissions closed this month and make sobering reading, from reputable welfare agencies, academics, providers and a few marked "confidential", probably from parents whose lives are being destroyed by this social experiment.

Read the submissions to understand the depth of misery visited upon the poor and the vulnerable. It targets Australia’s Indigenous people in a way which is clearly racist.

Let me summarise the submissions of such organisations as Wesley Mission, Good Shepherd, the National Employment Services Association, the Australian Library and Information Association. Their language is neutral but let me interpret. I’ll also make it simple so the government can’t pretend it doesn’t understand.

Those on parenting payments are already working, the unpaid work of looking after children. Children are lovely and their own reward but they are much less lovely when one has no money and no other means of support. If the government wants to have a pre-employment program for parents of children aged six months to six years, make it flexible. Don’t insist parents take kids to storytelling at the library or swimming. That has nothing to do with work-readiness. Don’t ask librarians to keep attendance sheets on behalf of ParentsNext. The librarians' association is furious because the most wonderful humans on the planet are being asked to breach their clients’ privacy. Australians know government departments don’t mind breaching privacy but librarians are ethical people.

ParentsNext disproportionately targets single mothers and Indigenous people. Does anyone think those groups need any more pressure? The National Employment Services Association submission says in some areas providers report up to 80 per cent of participants are experiencing family violence. Do you think people experiencing family violence need any more pressure?

The punishments don’t fit the crimes, which are really more in the line of errors of timing and organisation. As The Guardian reported last week: more than 16,000 parents received a payment suspension between July and December 2018, representing 21 per cent of the 75,000 participants. The suspension rate for Indigenous parents – who are targeted for eligibility and make up 19 per cent of participants – is higher at 27 per cent. And it is extremely difficult to get back on payments after a suspension.

Sarah Squire, head of Women’s Research, Advocacy and Policy Centre at Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, is baffled by the mandatory imposition of ParentsNext.

“There is a serious health and wellbeing impact from this kind of compliance. It makes women feel anxious and hypervigilant,” she says.

Squire says this idea women with small children can just take any job is ridiculous; there is little consideration of the current labour market or whether pushing women into precarious jobs turns into secure work. She fears financial incentives in place between providers and the government don't support the transition to long-term financial security.

“The government has said the best form of welfare is a job but with precarious, insecure work, the best form of a job might actually be welfare. With ParentsNext there’s no job security and no safety net.”

The history of coercive welfare began with former Prime Minister John Howard's Work for the Dole. It continued under former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, when the government slashed payments to single mothers. It is now used as a tool by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments to harass single mothers.

Welfare in Australia is increasingly about compliance, not support and encouragement, based on what Howard termed “mutual obligation”. In his1998 election speech, he said: “If people are supported by their fellow Australians, and they are able to do so, they should provide something in return for that support.”

Mutual obligation, first developed as an expectation of those who “are able to” now means punitive measures against vulnerable groups in Australia, single mothers of small children, unable to oblige the government. Parenting is hard. Why does the government want to make it even harder?

Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.

This story Our social security system hurts women with young children first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.