It’s been quietly breaking my heart to have to face the realisation, once again, that the Gillard government hate women as much as the Liberal National Party do. Around the same time Prime Minister Julia Gillard was making the world famous Misogyny Speech, which brought a tear of joy to my eye, the Gillard government and Abbot’s opposition, united to pass the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Bill 2012. They also timed it to coincide, more or less, with Anti Poverty Week. Cute. The bill, one of the most significant examples of claw-back policy to date, was passed in order to force single mothers from one social security payment to another lower payment once their youngest child turns 8 years – from Parenting Payment Single to Newstart, which is not actually a payment, but an unemployment allowance. It’s about $266.50 a week, maximum.
The use of the word “fair” in the new legislation is Orwellian. There is nothing fair about it. In a nut shell it means that single mothers who rely on the government to help them raise their families will now get less money. Quite a bit less. Reports of just how much less depend on the different circumstances of women’s social security arrangements.
Most women will lose their Health Care card because this supplement is not a part of the Newstart Allowance, which will result in poorer health for women and children. Variables such as having a child with a disability will be managed on a case by case basis and will depend a lot on who the woman happens to speak to on the day she makes an enquiry, what kind of mood they were in and how well they know the legislation. My personal and professional experience of Centrelink informs me that many Centrelink workers do not know their jobs very well at all. Quite often I had to inform them about my entitlements and requirements, and I am an able-bodied white woman who speaks fluent english. Many women will not have the social capital, language skills or self-advocacy skills to negotiate with Centrelink staff. Many will not push the point for fear of retribution or fear that the worker will report them to Community Services if they disclose domestic violence, for example. Most Centrelink workers wield power and privilege against women carelessly and insensitively.
Women will also lose the opportunity to study as a way of enhancing their income-earning capacity in the future as the Pensioner Education Supplement will now only be paid to women who were already studying when the legislation went live, and then only for the duration of the course they are currently undertaking. So too bad if your big picture plan was to complete a Tafe course or your HSC equivalent in order to be eligible for a university degree. Your capacity to engage in tertiary education while juggling child-raising, domestic labour and menial pink collar paid work outside the home, was just reduced even further. I have to wonder how this aspect of the legislation will impact on women who had already enrolled in courses for this year, but were technically not studying when the legislation went live.
Many women will, right now, be experiencing high levels of anxiety. Women who are already just scraping by because they thought they had their situation assessed and their strategies to keep their families out of poverty worked out. These women were told by the government that they could stay on the Parenting Payment until their youngest child turned 16 years. Now that the government has pulled the rug out from underneath them their long term plans have been smashed. Their chances of avoiding poor health, homelessness, and avoiding or escaping men’s violence have been greatly reduced. Social security payments for single mothers originally gave many women a degree of economic independence and enhanced capacity for self-determination, benefits which have now almost completely been eroded away by forces of economic rationalism and principles of workfarism, and have forced women into institutional dependency on the state. They have exchanged dependence on one male, private patriarchy, to dependence on the collective male, public patriarchy. This change to social security arrangements seems a bit at odds with the government’s previous statements about violence against women. “The great silent crime of our age” said Kevin Rudd when the government launched the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women. Violence which the same government also recognises as the “major driver of homelessness” in this country, as stated in the White Paper on homelessness.
It is also unclear just whether or not the issue of social security debt has been factored into this. Many women accrue Centrelink debt due to reporting requirements being so damned complicated, or because provision of information regarding reporting minor changes to circumstances is extremely unclear, even for able-bodied, english-speaking women. For example, will a woman’s debt repayments be reduced when she moves onto the Newstart Allowance? Many women do not even know the process for appealing a Centrelink debt, or just how easy it is, because the anxiety produced by Centrelink interactions is so great that women often only go there or pick up the phone (if they have one) when they absolutely have to.
It is also becoming apparent that many women have not been provided with adequate information about how the changes to the legislation will affect them or what they need to do. The Dept of Human Services website states that women whose youngest child has already turned 8 years will receive a phone call advising them of how to access payments after January 1, 2013. However, I know many women who did not receive a phone call, some because they have no access to a phone. Of the women who did receive one, many of them were not told clearly that the transition was not automatic. That is, that their Parenting Payment would suddenly be cut off after January 1, 2013, and that they would have to actually submit a new application for the Newstart Allowance. Remaining on a Centrelink payment is hard work at the best of times, and time-consuming. Women who are already over-extended through raising children, through the constant effort of just providing basic needs for children, and all the other unpaid work that women do, now have to negotiate an entirely new hurdle – right in the middle of the Christmas school holidays.
I do not buy the workfare rhetoric of “helping” women to move into paid employment. Most of these women are already doing paid employment along with everything else that they have to do to survive. The new arrangements will mean that the threshold for extra income will be lowered once women are on Newstart. So women who were on the Parenting Payment Single actually had more incentive to work outside the home than they will once they are on Newstart. On the Parenting Payment, a woman could earn up to $176 a fortnight, plus an extra $24 for each extra child she has, before her payment would be reduced by 40c in the dollar. Now she will only be able to earn $62 a fortnight, with apparently no consideration of how many children she has, before her payment will be reduced by 40c in the dollar. So like what the actual fuck, Gillard Government? Your statements about “helping” people into the workforce are lies. Filthy fucking lies. This so called “fair” legislation even seems at odds with the government’s stated economic aim of saving itself money. The costs will arise in other social service areas such as increased pressure on housing and health services.
British Social Worker, Lena Dominelli, has talked about the paradigm of the welfare state in relation to women (Feminist social work theory and practice, Palgrave, 2002). She talks about the ways Social Workers who are mostly women working to help other women, are just another sub-class of women who are dependent on the state for their income. Seeing as Social Workers get paid very little compared to people in male dominated professions, despite the requirement of a four year degree, and the great show made by the Gillard government of implementing the Equal Pay Case recommendations last month, it appears to this cynical radical feminist that divisions between women have been exploited once again. I wonder if the Equal Pay Case came at the expense of the women we seek to help. Overall it appears to be a very short term, but very vicious solution to the issue of the need to deliver a budget surplus in an election year – at the expense of women and children. What a surprise.
Edit: For people wanting more information about the changes I would suggest the Welfare Rights Network as a good starting point: