Kristie Rue is going OK, all things considered. She has work that is flexible and nearby, but it is contract-based and not permanent. She lives in community housing in Leichhardt, but it is comfortable and affordable. Her 10-year old son, William, happily attends Leichhardt Public and takes part in the school band.
But for a while it looked like things wouldn’t work out. In January Kristie was moved, along with 65,000 others, from the Parenting Payment on to the lesser Newstart Allowance. Overnight she lost $120 a fortnight. For a single person with dependent children, Newstart pays just $271.05 a week.
“I stuck my head in the sand and hoped to God that everything was gonna be OK,” she recalls. For two years Kristie had been studying a Diploma of Community Service at Ultimo TAFE, which concluded in December.
“Everybody said to me – community service work, there’s heaps of work around, you’ll be fine,” she said.
But finding an employer who could accommodate her needs as a mother proved difficult. Kristie says she was passed over for two jobs because she can’t work a rotating roster.
“Lots of positions are shift work and that was something I wasn’t able to do.”
Kristie now works for a number of social organisations in the inner west, but it is temporary and insecure. She hopes to find something that is permanent but flexible.
She is also participating in a group called “Friends of Sole Parents”, which supports and empowers disadvantaged single mums and dads. It operates twice a week from Sydenham’s St Peters Town Hall.
Julie Forster, the group’s co-founder, said the focus is on reducing isolation for vulnerable single parents.
“They can’t really afford to get out and about,” she said. Many struggle with making ends meet financially, or dealing with difficult and protracted custody battles in the Family Court. Compounding that can be an overwhelming sense of loneliness.
“The incidence of poor mental health is double in single parents to what it is in coupled parents,” Ms Forster said.
At present the group’s main activities involve arts, craft and cooking, to help facilitate interaction and form bonds. Ms Forster is acutely aware of the financial stress faced by single parents in the inner west, and hopes to soon be able to assist members with finding work and other problems.
She says finding affordable but serviceable housing, and family friendly workplaces, are big challenges for inner west parents.
“What I’m finding is that there are a lot of families in sub-standard housing that are full of mould, and it makes the children sick,” she said. Parents will find themselves struggling to maintain work if they have to constantly take time off to care for sick kids.
Ms Forster said the decision to move single parents on to Newstart has been “quite devastating for large numbers of families”.
Kristie experienced that first hand. William went without a new school uniform at the beginning of the year, while mounting bills forced his mum to max out the credit card and apply for early access to superannuation because of hardship.
“My rent didn’t decrease, my electricity didn’t decrease, my costs for raising my son didn’t decrease, but my payment did,” she said.
“You can’t call your telephone provider and say: sorry, my payment just decreased so I won’t be paying you anymore.”
William, she says, was acutely aware of the family’s hardship because extracurricular activities – which typically require enrolment, travel and uniforms – became too expensive to continue.
“There was no way of disguising to him what was going on,” she said.
“”There are a lot of opportunities in the inner west for kids, but when you’re financially struggling, they’re the things that you just can’t let your kids do.”
The decision to move single parents with children over eight years old on to Newstart was made under the former Gillard Labor government, but was the extension of a Howard Government policy from 2006.
Tony Abbott’s Coalition has flagged an intention to improve welfare payments for single parents. The Australian has reported that social services minister Kevin Andrews favours “a more generous income test for parents on Newstart”.
Friends of Sole Parents meets on Wednesdays and Saturdays at St Peters Town Hall, 39 Unwins Bridge Road, Sydenham. For more information visit: friendsofsoleparents.org.au