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The denigration and stereotyping of single mothers, has endured a long history in Australia and throughout the world. Over the past 100 years, the societal and political response to unwed mothers and single motherhood has seen many changes.

This essay will discuss the evolution of policies and financial support concerning unemployed single mothers with a focus on the present-day policies of ‘Welfare to Work’ and ‘ParentsNext’ policies. The essay will also discuss the shifts in societal and political discourses surrounding single mothers, which influenced historical policymaking such as; female activism; and the shift from an immoral standpoint to an economic standpoint. And the political shift from a protective state to an enabling state (Mendes, 2003).

Since 1941, many significant social and economic changes have occurred. These changes have influenced the nature and the level of financial assistance for families. At the start of the century, there was no government financial assistance like social security. Charities and families had to help their own or the needy.

After World War II, the Commonwealth introduced the Universal child endowment in 1941 and the widow’s pension in 1942. Those who were eligible included; deserted wives, divorced women, and women whose husbands were in prison or a mental hospital. (Abs.gov.au, 2019).

Before 1975, Swain & Howe (1995), argued that single mothers were stigmatized and labeled by society. Unwed mothers were regarded as women with loose morals and were shunned by societies and their families. Unwed single mothers who had family support were kept quiet about their predicament. In some cases, children were raised by their grandparents and were told their mother was their sibling.

From the 1950s up until the 1970s, babies of unwed mothers were labeled ‘illegitimate’ and women were seen as incapable of caring for their child. Due to societal and political worldviews, no financial support from the government, and no childcare. It was nearly impossible to survive and care for your child without family support.

Most families kicked girls out if they couldn’t get their father to marry her. This was due to the fear and shame they may face from a judging society and community. Society’s way of fixing this and other pressing issues, such as; unwed single motherhood, illegitimate children, and infertility. Was to forcibly remove over 20,000 babies from young single mothers, and put them up for adoption, traumatizing these women for life. (Carson and Kerr, 2017, p.196).

The government may not have directly been involved, but their moral views and the failure to assist these women enforced marriage or adoption, either by free will or by forcing consent.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, single mothers were starting to change. They were now more middle class and better educated with a newfound knowledge of their rights and choices. Women were fed up with the lack of government and societal support and demanded change. Women’s groups were able to influence legislation and family policy through protest, public awareness, and lobbying the state to provide income support and in turn be able to achieve independence. (Swain and Howe, 1995)

Feminist activism helped shape policy and was the driving force behind policy change with the development of childcare, which helped women enter the workforce when their children were younger than school age. (Swain and Howe, 1995)

Through the 1970’s the Whitlam government took notice and made radical changes to legislation and social policies. These included; the introduction of the supporting mother’s benefit in 1973, which now extended support to unwed mothers who were not eligible to get the widower’s pension. This allowed women to be able to look after their children at home without having to work. Childcare access was brought in to help women who were either married or single, to find work when their children were under school age.

Extensive changes to the family law including the ‘no-faults’ divorce allowed women to be able to leave bad marriages, knowing they have financial support and laws to protect them (Hodgson, 2014).

Fast forward to 2006, the Howard government announced the Welfare to Work program. From July 1st, 2006, any new applications for the parenting payment were moved from this payment to the less generous Newstart Allowance when their youngest child turned eight.

This meant a significant cut in payments for single mothers. Parenting payment at the time was $331.85 per week and Newstart was $266.50. This impacted single mothers significantly, with some having to move due to rent affordability. (Carson & Kerr, 2017. Pp. 174-176.)

Under this program, sole parents were required to look for at least 30 hours of paid work per fortnight and attend meetings and required activities. A part of these mandatory activities is working for the dole program, this can be replaced by part-time employment or part-time study/training to fulfill your job plan.

Single parents claiming Parenting Payment before the first of July 2006, were exempted from this requirement until their child turned 16. In 2013, the Gillard government extended this to all single parents. The government’s consistent claim has been that these reforms would improve the ‘wellbeing’ of those involved (Mendes, 2009).

Debates at the time were over whether benefits have encouraged sole motherhood. According to Swan and Bernstam (1987), the increase in people applying for the sole parent pension may have been due to the availability of welfare payments for sole parents.

More punitive measures occurred for unemployed single mothers when the Gillard government introduced the ParentsNext program for trial in 2012. This was designed for single parents with preschool-age children, to assist them in planning and preparing for employment by the time their children go to school.

From July 2018, under the Turnball Government, it was extended and made compulsory for 70,000 parents (ACOSS, 2019).

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Participation in this program is mandatory. Participants are required to meet with their ParentsNext provider regularly and agree to carry out planned activities. Failure to attend a meeting with your ParentsNext provider or failure to undertake the compulsory activities results in payment suspension.

Included in these activities are mandatory swimming lessons, playgroup sessions, and activities such as “story time” at their local library. Evidence is needed or else payments will be suspended (ACOSS, 2019).

The ideological paradigm behind these punitive paternalistic welfare reforms is a form of neoliberalism (De Goede, 1996), with the emphasis being strictly on economic participation. While individuals are expected to be good parents and support their children, under neoliberalism their primary responsibility is to the economy.

This neoliberalism and risk management type of approach to welfare dependency was supported by both parties and is a form of social control over vulnerable people, which shifted responsibility from the state to the individual. (Carson and Kerr, 2017)

The monitoring and mandatory requirements of the ParentsNext policy show that the judgment, prejudice, and stereotyping of single mothers as economically irresponsible and morally irresponsible still remain in the collective consciousness of our politicians and society.

The view that single mothers are incapable of providing appropriate activities for their children or reading to them, sends a message to society saying that single parents are somehow deficient in childrearing and need the government and policymakers instructing and enforcing their idea of what they think single parents are not providing, enforcing policy-makers ideas of what is the right way to bring up children.

Family discourses powerfully influence the lives of men and women in Western societies. These discourses see good parenthood as heterosexual, coupled parenthood with single parenthood signifying problematic or deficit (Mannis, 1999). The idea is that older married heterosexual parenthood is ideal parenthood and the standard against which all other forms of parenthood are judged. Family discourses are major contributors to the construction of single parenthood as a social problem. (Van Acker, 2005).

Other issues with these types of programs are the increased use of privatization and outsourcing of contractors by the government to deal with the unemployed. This moves the responsibility away from the state and onto the individual. This results in service providers competing for government funding and can create a financial incentive for some contractors to exploit the vulnerable. Pressure is put on staff to keep clients in the program in order to achieve more budget cuts to get more funding. (‘Final Report | Treasury.gov.au’, 2019)

The debates about which forms of income support are fair, are typically emotive and reflect societal values and narratives of the day. The conversation around the deserving poor and the undeserving poor stigmatizes and groups everybody who is dependent on the government. The stereotyping, assumptions, and name-calling, impact single mothers greatly. They are torn between mutual obligations, job seeking, working, and parental obligations. (Carson & Kerr, 2017. p. 196.)

The government doesn’t seem to understand the struggles of single parents. The false assumptions that parenting is fluid and can be manipulated to meet the requirements of the programs, are ignorant and stressful for the single mother. Unpaid full-time care doesn’t seem to be valued in Australia. The present government would rather help out middle-class married mothers through childcare rebates and tax cuts. Whilst single mothers may, in the future. get the pleasures of a drug test and a basic card, which further stigmatizes and disadvantages women and children amongst others.

The impacts of single mothers being pushed into work when they have young children force them to only be able to find low-paying, flexible casual jobs to fit around the care of their child/children. In a lot of cases, to lack of education or lack of experience in the workforce, can lead to a lifetime of low-paying jobs and reduced superannuation. They generally cannot afford to buy a house in their lifetime and will need to rely on benefits when they get older. Thus, further entrenching generational disadvantage and poverty. (Carson & Kerr, 2017. pp. 74-81)

A Senate inquiry report found the ParentsNext program, was causing “anxiety, stress and harm” for parents across the country. The Australian Government is now facing pressure to overhaul the program, with the Senate inquiry stating it was significantly flawed (ACOSS, 2019).

Recommendations from the Senate Inquiry included discussions around improving the program. Such as collaborating with experts, parents, and providers to redesign the program to fit a more supportive, client-centered approach. The Senate inquiry also recommended that sanctions should be used against ParentsNext providers who breach government guidelines. And that providers should be trained in cultural competency, domestic abuse, and disability (ParentsNext. 2019).

The Minister for Jobs, Kelly O’Dwyer, defended the program, claiming that the program had good intentions and would help put an end to intergenerational poverty and welfare dependency by providing a path to employment. Having said that, O’Dwyer also stated that the government will consider the recommendations of the senate inquiry and look further into claims of job provider breaches (Parliament of Australia, 2019).

Throughout Australian history, single mothers have been portrayed as young, unwed, morally and economically irresponsible, and dependent on welfare. In recent times, public views have changed, and single mothers aren’t stigmatized as much as in the past, especially because of their marital status and moral stance.

The new economically irresponsible, labeling seen in the political arena and in the media today, isn’t as blatant as in the 1960’s but can be just as detrimental. Today, the words bludger, dependent, irresponsible, and lazy, signify that single mothers who need assistance, are somehow not capable of making the right decisions for their children compared to married mothers, and need extra special mandatory guidance and monitoring to ensure the health of the economy and future generations.

In 1987, Prime Minister Bob Hawke spoke one of his most memorable quotes; ‘By 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty’ (‘Transcript 7924 | PM Transcripts’, 1990). Decades on this is far from the truth, according to (ACOSS, 2016), The risk of poverty for children in sole-parent families are three times more likely to live in poverty than children who live in couple families. 731,000 children were living in poverty in Australia in 2016. 40% were from single-parent families (ACOSS 2016).

The transfer of 80,000 sole parents to Newstart Allowance in 2013, according to the Australian Council of Social Security (2018), was associated with this increase in the rate of poverty among unemployed sole parents. Poverty rose from 35% in 2013 to 59% just two years later.

The government needs to put single parents back on the agenda, raise the Newstart allowance, or allow single parents to stay on parenting payment until their child turns sixteen. Children are living in poverty and the government is too busy worrying about the economy, which will be impacted by the rise of poverty and the widening of the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Intergenerational poverty and later-age dependency are imminent if the situation isn’t dealt with.

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