Prejudiced policymaking underlies Labor’s cuts to single parent payments

There’s no doubt that last week’s stoush between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott over sexism and misogyny was extraordinary. But in spite of all the bluster, a comparison of each party’s policies might serve as a more accurate indicator of inbuilt gender prejudices.

In areas of social policy the mindsets of both parties are similar, if not identical. This was clearly illustrated by the support of both Abbott and Gillard for the passage of social security amendments, which will reduce the income of more than 100,000 sole parents — almost all female.

At the same time as the government was bruiting its first tranche payment to low-paid welfare workers — a welcome, if slow, reform — it was conspicuously silent on its planned cuts to the single parent allowance. The only opposing views came from the Greens, who have since also sought extra money for the 60,000 sole parents whose income will drop by nearly $ 60 per week on January first 2013.

This is a Howard Welfare to Work policy, which has been enthusiastically taken up by Gillard. It is sexist because it fails to recognise the value of parenting. These sole parents have been grandfathered on this payment for at least six years, and are already under an obligation to look for fifteen hours a week paid work (or are currently in such a job). Some have serious difficulties finding appropriate paid work that allows them to prioritise their children’s needs. They are balancing low income, time demands and employer prejudices to combine care needs and part-time work.

The core issue is whether the decision to further extend this program can be justified by evidence supporting the claim that changing the payment system will actually benefit sole parents. The proposition is that that lower pay rates, together with some improvements to employment support services, will increase their workforce participation rates.

This is presumed to be beneficial. The shift of this cohort to the lower pay level is based on the assumption that the move has significantly benefited a proportion of parents that have already been subject to the changed eligibility.

The government’s case, supported by the Opposition, has relied on stereotypes to reassure any questioners that these supposedly problematic sole parents will benefit from a reduced income, as it will force them into paid jobs. The argument being put forward is that these sole parents stayed on the higher parenting payment in 2006, so it’s only fair to lower their payments to match the 40,000 or so sole parents already on the lower Newstart payment. This way, they can share its benefits. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) argument is that these parents are already being pushed off the payments to their own benefit, so the changes obviously work.

There are fewer sole parents on sole parent payments but, as their eligibility for the payments changed, that is to be expected. Many of the parenting payment recipients who have a part-time job would not qualify for Newstart, as the taper rate is higher and basic income lower. Some estimates suggest about 30% would lose their eligibility for a payment and the concessions that accompany them.

I spent some time trying to find statistics on who, exactly, was on parenting payments. It was hard to work this out, as the DEEWR doesn’t seem to publish any usable information on sole parent payment recipients. I could find the in April 2012 (320,828), but no details on their workforce status, age of children or duration of payment. Newstart figures do not indicate whether recipients are sole parents, in paid work and the ages of their children.

The only figures I could find to assess the economic situation of single female sole parents were some ABS statistics on workforce participation. These do not cover payment sources, but relate to the government‘s claims that sole parents would share the benefits of paid work. The ABS data shows some changes in employment and unemployment (actively looking for paid work) rates of sole parents, including those with children under 15. However, the lack of any discernible patterns of change make it quite clear that the policy changes cannot be based on these numbers.

The first table, from the Labour Force survey clearly shows that the numbers of single mothers in employment increased between 2005 and 2006 by 21,000 before the changes were brought in. The next year after the change, the increase was less (under 19,000). The following year saw a quite small increase (not quite 8,000) then a slight drop in 2009. The numbers rose again in the last two years.

The 2006 changed eligibility was not clearly responsible for this pattern of employment. The unemployment rates for single mothers in the row below showed the number looking for work had also risen and fallen over the same time bracket in no particular pattern, and the total of sole parents not in the labour force also increased over the period.

The second set of figures refer to the percentage of jobless sole parents with children under 15. The jobless percentage in 2005 was 46% but this dropped to 43.7% in 2006, and even lower to 36% in 2008. The figure then rose in 2009 to 39.8%, and hovered around this level for the next two years. On the basis of these figures, it is difficult to argue that the changes to policy have significantly affected the number of sole parents who are now in paid work.

The figures that state actual recipients of particular payments are not very useful indicators of change. People moved to other payment such as Carer’s Payment and the Disability Support Pension, both of which experienced an increase of female claimants when this change came in. Others, who were only part-payment recipients, simply lost eligibility and had their living standards reduced.

Therefore, it is hard for the ALP to claim that this change as an example of good, evidence-based policy making. It would seem that picking on groups based on social prejudices carries more weight in parliament than actual evidence.

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