Single mothers deserve so much more than the financial struggles they’re facing


A recent study of 1100 single mothers in Australia found just over half are earning less than $40,000 a year, including 19% with less than $20,000. Almost half of the 25% of respondents reported working full time said they had difficulties meeting  general living costs.

Jenny Davidson, the CEO of Council of Single Mothers and their Children which ran the survey, shares more on the financial realities facing single mothers, in line with Anti-Poverty Week. 

Earlier this week, ACOSS released their Poverty in Australia 2018 Report, with data indicating once again that sole parent families have the highest poverty rate of all family types in Australia, with a massive 32% of such families living below the poverty line (measured based on 50% of medium income).

Indeed, poverty in sole parent families is at levels significantly higher than single people, couples or couple families of any age, and has been throughout the past 25 years of economic growth in Australia.

The ACOSS Report clearly defines the sources of this poverty: moving single parents from Parenting Payment Single to the lower Newstart Allowance when their youngest child is 8 is driving poverty, as is having only one wage to cover the ever-increasing costs of living in Australia.

“A major source of child poverty is the high poverty rate (32%) among sole parent families, who must generally rely on a single income.”
ACOSS Poverty in Australia 2018 Report

What the report fails to do is to provide a true insight into the gendered make up of “sole parent families”.

Eighty one per cent of single parent families are headed by a single mother – the vast majority, as the report fleetingly describes, in the section dedicated to gender.

Women head 765,000 families in Australia, and about 245,000 women and their children are living in acute poverty. It is amongst single, female led families that we see the greatest feminisation of poverty in Australia, and the confluence of unpaid caring work, the pay gap and paternalistic government policies. Indeed, the issue is spread across single mothers in most income brackets, who are working, scrimping and going hungry to try to provide for their children on a single income.

In September and October, the Council of Single Mothers and their Children undertook at national survey of single mothers to get a better sense of the financial security of singles mothers, with over 1100 respondents.

While just over half are earning less than $40,000 per year, including 19% with a disturbingly low income of less than $20,000, there is a stark story to be told by those women who are working, are living above the poverty line, and yet are barely making ends meet.

Twenty five per cent of our survey respondents reported they are working full time, and of these, almost half had difficulties meeting their general living costs in the past 12 months. Seventy nine per cent of these full-time employed single mothers are concerned or very concerned about their current financial wellbeing, and 87% are concerned or very concerned about their longer-term financial wellbeing.

We know the issues these mothers are concerned about – limited superannuation due to time out of the workforce or working part-time caring for children; no ability to save for a deposit to enter the housing market, and other issues. These women are on a trajectory to join the increasing numbers of older, single women facing homelessness.

Right now, however, these women’s primary concern is providing for their children.

We know that for many, this is entirely up to them, as demonstrated by the unpaid child support debt in Australia of $1.2 billion – that largely represents men defaulting on the costs of raising their children. This figure is hugely understated, as is only includes those families on the books of the Child Support Agency; a good number of families have private arrangements for the transfer of child support, which the government blithely assumes is paid in full.

As one survey respondent told us on the impact of a shortage of money:

“We have no insurance, house, care personal, health… none. We go without dental care. There is always stress, sometimes it makes me physically vomit I get so stressed about how to pay and do everything. We don’t eat healthy nutritious meals every night, some meals are replaced with toast or noodles, to stretch out the food.”

There’s a mathematical rationale to this: for a two-parent family, there are 48 hours in any day in which to work, care, parent and rest. In a single parent family, there are only 24 hours to do all those things – work, run a home, parent, ferry kids around and sleep. You can guess which is the first thing to go: sleep, along with any hope of having your own life.

For Anti-Poverty Week this year, Council of Single Mothers and their Children held an event called “Solutions to the entrenched poverty of single mother families”. While we didn’t entirely solve the issue in two hours, many solutions were proposed, some new — such as shifting the meaning of money — others well known, like valuing the unpaid work of parents and carers.

Indeed, the issues that affect single mothers do not affect them in isolation: single mothers need permanent part-time jobs that fit with their family responsibilities, as do other parents, carers and the growing demographic caring for aging parents. Single parents need more assistance with the costs of education, such as free public transportation and access to extracurricular activities, as do other Health Care Card holders.

One suggestion was that we need a public backlash to make real change happen, and we agree! Single mothers are invaluable members of our community who are raising great kids. They are working hard to provide a good life for their children and they deserve more than grinding poverty and a compromised future for themselves and their children.

Council of Single Mothers and their Children are mobilising single mothers and their allies to take actions, small and large, to achieve a society where single mother families are valued and treated equally and fairly. Join us!

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