Public sympathy grows for single parents’ plight
The backlash to the Federal Government’s single parent welfare cuts is a sign of the public’s softening attitude towards sole parents, writes Adele Horin.
The latest blow against sole parents executed by the Labor Government is part of a long tradition of punishing and stigmatising single mothers that goes back to colonial times.
A single woman’s pregnancy has historically been regarded as a social catastrophe. Right up to the 1970s hysterical parents shipped their pregnant daughters off to distant relatives or to institutions called asylums, refuges or mother and baby homes.
Even after feminism, higher divorce rates, and changing sexual mores, single mothers continued to be the butt of hostile public attitudes and punitive government policies. Their status merely changed from fallen woman to welfare bludger.
But in the summer of 2013, tentative signs of a softening of public attitude towards sole parents emerged that may have taken the Gillard Government by surprise.
The Government has found itself on the defensive in its policy that will eventually shift around 110,000 sole parents from the Parenting Payment to the poverty-level Newstart Allowance once their youngest child turns eight.
For a start, the Government has not been able to rely on the usual allies in the episodic wars against sole mothers – the tabloid television media. Both a barometer and shaper of public attitudes, programs such as A Current Affair and Today Tonight have come round to a more balanced representation of sole parents.
Typical of A Current Affair’s past coverage of sole parents were its 2010 programs, Cosmetic Mum, about an 18-year-old single mother who hoped to go to Malaysia for nip-and-tuck surgery to get her body back in shape; and Cashing In With Centrelink about gaming the social security system.
But in November 2012 in its program Single Parents, ACA declaimed:
They’re the drastic welfare cuts that are set to take hundreds of millions of dollars from single mums across the country. Now these mothers fight for a fair go.
And in December in Single Mums, ACA told viewers that “for more than 100,00 single mums New Year’s day won’t be a time for celebration.. They’ll have their welfare payments slashed.”
Samantha Seymour, a 44-year-old mother of eight-year-old twins, with a degree (and until recently a good part-time job) was one of the mothers featured and she bore no resemblance to what she calls “the Coke-drinking stereotype”. As organiser of the nationwide sole parent rallies held on February 5, she said, “The media portrayed us in a good light.”
Today Tonight underwent a similar conversion from its 2011 outings, Faring Well On Welfare and Centrelink’s Singles Dobbed In (about sole parents with alleged secret partners), to the more sympathetic – if misnamed – Baby Bonus Busted. It highlighted the plight of three “intelligent” single parents as the program called them, who would be affected by the “severe government cutbacks”.
It would be wrong to call this a new dawn; plenty of the comments left on the programs’ websites revealed the usual hatred and prejudices. (Much was made of one sole mother’s manicured nails.) And it is possible loathing for the Government even exceeds loathing for sole parents, making any initiative a target for the Labor haters.
But Terese Edwards, chief executive officer of the National Council of Single Mothers and Their Children, with more than a decade in social welfare campaigning, was so struck by the more sympathetic community attitude that emerged over the summer that she emailed Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Bill Shorten warning of what she called “a noticeable change in the terrain”. This included more “more sympathetic and positive messaging from the media…” and “more expansive media interest”.