The phrase 'working families', so over used by Kevin Rudd in the recent federal election campaign, had a particular bite for many single mothers trying to manage the 'work-life collision' of welfare reform. Introduced on 1 July 2006, the reforms are based on the belief that employment provides the most viable pathway out of poverty and enforces compulsory job search requirements. The focus is on people already marginalised from the labour market. A year and a half on, these reforms have created a great deal more work and very little real benefit for most single mother-headed families. Most single mothers work extremely hard in both paid and unpaid work and are still poor. The welfare reforms have simply added a 'third shift' of bureaucratic labour to single mothers' burden and made their incomes more uncertain.
Sole parent families are one of the most common family types in contemporary Australia, now constituting almost a quarter of all families with children under fifteen. They are also among the poorest, frequently surviving on incomes on or close to the poverty line. The ABS estimates that 87 per cent of these families are headed by women. In spite of the care and responsibility involved in being a mother, the reforms act to entrench single mothers in the role of paid worker. They critically undervalue the importance of the unpaid, under-recognised work of raising healthy, happy children to be become functioning adults.
The strategic use of the idea of 'welfare dependency' focused Peter Costello's campaign to enforce participation in paid work. Single mothers are now required to actively seek and/or undertake 15-25 hours of paid work per week. Once their youngest child turns eight they are moved from Parenting Payment Single to Newstart, resulting in a loss of $28 a week. Regardless of the ages of their children, parents who move off Parenting Payment Single for more than twelve weeks are permanently moved to the lesser Newstart payment.