Monday, July 16, 2012
By Emma Davidson
Opinion columnists and politicians often talk about the importance of contributing to society through paid work and taxes, and not expecting government support for every hardship life throws our way.
We hear it in terms like mutual obligations or social contract, or, as Bernard Salt puts it in The Australian, not succumbing to Special Disease and Victim Syndrome (paywalled)
Much has been made of the terrible burden placed on the federal budget by those who need income support because their parenting responsibilities do not allow them to participate fully in the paid workforce.
Some columnists talk about single parents reliant on receiving welfare payments as if they are the “undeserving poor”. The reality is that most single people on Parenting Payment are women working hard to provide for their children – it’s just that they can’t earn much in the paid workforce.
This is in large part due to the combination of inadequate childcare and school holiday programs, difficulty finding jobs with flexible hours, being solely responsible for every domestic task at home when the paid work day is done, and the effect on self-confidence and job readiness of being out of the paid workforce for a few years.
For single-parent families, welfare benefits help close the gap between very low and median household income, which has a massive effect on their ability to pay for housing. This in turn provides children in single-parent families with a better chance of moving out of poverty through improved school attendance and education achievement, and better health.ABS Census data from 2011 shows the median household income is now $1,234 per week, average mortgage repayments are $415 per week ($1,800 per month), and average rent is $285 per week.
Median income is the halfway marker, not the average – half of Australian households earn less than $1,234 per week. Average rent takes into account those paying for public housing or caravan park fees, as well as private rent – most people wouldn’t want to live long term in a caravan park, and can’t wait years for public housing.
The problem with Census information on rent is that the figure given is the average, not the median. The median is more useful because it is the halfway point – half the households are paying less than the median figure in rent.
A better guide to the private rental market can be found in the Australian Property Monitors Rental Report for March 2012. Averaged across capital cities, median rent in Australian capital cities is now $421 per week for units and $481 for houses.
This means that the median income household cannot afford a median rent unit, and definitely not a house, without going into housing stress – paying more than 30 per cent of their income on housing.
In fact, you’d be lucky to find anything for rent in most capital cities for less than $370 per week (30 per cent of the median household income). And when you’re on a very low income, spending 30 per cent on housing doesn’t leave much for other costs of living like electricity, food, transport, and medical expenses.
According to the ABS report on Government Benefits, Taxes and Household Income 2009-10 released on July 5, 2012, single parents would earn just 36 per cent of the average equivalised private household income of couples with dependent children if they didn’t receive welfare support payments.
That’s just $369 per week. If they’re looking for a place to live for less than 30 per cent of their income, that means finding somewhere for less than $110 per week in rent. It’s just not possible.
With Parenting Payment and Family Tax Benefit, single parents on an average equivalised household income earn around $801 per week. That means they can afford to pay $240 per week in rent before they hit that 30 per cent stress point. Still not possible in most capital cities, but better than $110 per week.
This could be part of the reason why there are more than 44,000 women in Australia every night who “couch surf” because they can’t afford a safe place to live. It may contribute to the reason why 31 per cent of low income households couldn’t pay their electricity bill on time in 2009-10, or why 20.1 per cent sought financial assistance from family and friends.
And while we experience another freezing winter, 6.3 per cent of low income households can’t afford heating.
It is a disgrace that we as a society continue to allow single parent families to risk homelessness because of the inadequacy of current welfare payments. It is even more disgraceful that elements of the Australian community seek to further reduce the meagre welfare payments of single parent families by pushing more women from Parenting Payment onto the lower rate Newstart Allowance, and to push more teenage children from Family Tax Benefit onto Youth Allowance.
To classify those single parents as “undeserving poor” because they are not contributing to the economy through paid work negates the very real work they do in raising healthy, well-adjusted children under difficult financial circumstances. Single parents deserve support, not scapegoating.
Emma Davidson is a project coordinator at Equality Rights Alliance, Australia’s largest network of organisations advocating women’s equality, women’s leadership, and recognition of women’s diversity. Equality Rights Alliance is managed by YWCA Australia.