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The compulsory ParentsNext program aims to help disadvantaged parents find work. Instead, it has led to financial instability for many participants, who struggle to meet the scheme’s requirements. By Clementine Ford.

ParentsNext program not helping single and sole mothers

Jobs Minister Kelly O’Dwyer, who ruled out any changes to ParentsNext, addresses the media in January 2019.
Credit: AAP Image / Dan Himbrechts

Florence* had been receiving the government’s Single Parenting Payment for only six months when she was told she would be compulsorily moved on to the new ParentsNext program. As the sole parent of two school-aged children, Florence had spent the prior seven years in paid employment but was forced to leave her job after her elderly mother became unwell and needed a carer. Any hopes of receiving the practical “pre-employment” support ParentsNext claims to offer its recipients were quickly dashed.

“My experiences in ParentsNext have been demeaning and stressful,” she told me.

During her four months on the program, Florence says, she has been subjected to increased surveillance and scrutiny over her day-to-day activities. On at least one occasion, her payments were suspended for four weeks because the reporting process on the MyGov website changed without notification, and she could no longer report her income fortnightly. It took her three attempts to speak directly with a Centrelink employee in order to have the error corrected.

Florence is just one of countless parents who have found their financial stability being threatened by this new form of conditional welfare. The brainchild of the Coalition government, ParentsNext has been beleaguered by issues since its inception.

The program began in April 2016 as a 26-month trial in 10 locations, chosen for their relative socio-economic disadvantage, before being rolled out nationally in July 2018. Since then, more than 70,000 recipients of the existing parenting pension have been forcibly moved into the program, which requires parents of babies as young as six months old to return to work and undertake “approved” activities in order to receive their assistance.

According to the Department of Jobs and Small Business, 95 per cent of participants in the scheme are women, many single or sole mothers who, statistically speaking, are also likely to be among the most impoverished people living in our community. “It is not a pathway into employment,” Terese Edwards, the chief executive of the National Council for Single Mothers and their Children, has said of ParentsNext, “it is a pathway into homelessness.”

Antoinette Braybrook, chief executive of Djirra, formerly the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service Victoria, points out that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents make up about 19 per cent of the participants on ParentsNext. “Time and time again we see these sorts of punitive approaches damaging our women and punishing them rather than assisting them. This program must end and funding should be redirected towards appropriate services that support women, not damage their lives and their children’s lives.”

The government describes ParentsNext as a “pre-employment” program, claiming it has been “designed with the aim of assisting disadvantaged parents, particularly early school-leavers and those assessed to have high barriers to employment, to plan and prepare for future study or work before their youngest child commences school”.

While this sounds good on paper, many in the program have found the practical reality to be very different. “ParentsNext is not helpful to many, many people, bordering on dangerous for vulnerable people who get payments cut,” says Katrina*, a single mother. “Money would be better spent on support for parents, more mental health visits et cetera. If people aren’t working or aren’t furthering their education, there is usually a reason deeper than them just being lazy.”

Community opposition to the program has been strong, and a joint referral for a senate inquiry, led by Labor and the Greens, was approved in December 2018. The findings of that inquiry have been damning, with the Senate Community Affairs References Committee ultimately recommending in March this year that ParentsNext not continue in its current form. Instead, the report recommends it be “reshaped, through a process of co-design with parents and experts, into a more supportive pre-employment program which meets the needs of parents and acknowledges and addresses the structural barriers to employment which they face”.

Ella Buckland understands these barriers all too well. She became a sole parent in 2014, after her partner left her and their eight-month-old daughter. Although she had a degree in social science and an extensive employment history that included working as a political staffer for the Greens, Buckland’s sudden need for assistance and support forced her to return to live with her mother in Lismore, a town with one of the highest unemployment rates in New South Wales. She says this is a common problem for single and sole mothers in particular.

“I would love to be working full-time and earning $80,000 a year again,” she says, “but I can’t do that because I’m a sole parent and there’s no support. No one comes into my house for free and cooks me dinner or does my washing. The government has halved the number of hours someone like me is entitled to for subsidised childcare because I’m not ‘meeting any activities’. They’re targeting the bottom of the bottom in terms of unemployed, mostly single mothers. They don’t acknowledge the skills that it takes to be a parent.”

Buckland’s background as a political staffer placed her in a unique position to effectively organise against ParentsNext. She started a Facebook page, “Parents Against ParentsNext”, and launched a Change.org petition calling on the government to make ParentsNext voluntary, which has gained more than 40,000 signatures. She has become the most prominent rallying figure against the program, with women contacting her regularly to share their frustration and fear over their precarious economic situations becoming even more uncertain and the impact these policies will have on their children’s health and wellbeing.

A common frustration for mothers on ParentsNext is that they are classified by the program as “unemployed workers”, regardless of the fact they are raising an infant full-time. But economic indicators often discount, or entirely disregard, unpaid female labour.

In 2014, the year Buckland became a sole mother, a study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that this unpaid labour performed in Australia was worth $434 billion, almost half of the national gross domestic product. In 2018, the Victorian government also commissioned a study to establish the economic cost of unpaid labour most commonly performed by women. It found this work was valued at a staggering $205 billion – about half of Victoria’s gross state product. Moreover, the study established that Victorian women do almost twice as much unpaid work as men. Meanwhile, Australia’s child support debt last year surpassed $1.5 billion.

It isn’t just women forced onto ParentsNext who recognise its failings. In the course of writing this article, I was contacted by a Centrelink employee whose work involved informing parents they were either “compulsory participants” or required to “test their eligibility”.

“The Department of Human Services describes this initiative very differently to how it actually is,” the employee told me via email. “What the program offers, how parents can exit the program and how often parents will have obligations are all very different to the stories I’ve seen. I believe the Dept of Jobs and Small Business providers are being very deceptive to parents.”

The employee also observed a lack of consistency in who is considered eligible for the program and who isn’t. They note that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents in particular seem to be automatically forced into ParentsNext, simply because of their identification.

“It’s all over the place and there’s no rhyme or reason,” they lamented.

Labor has promised, if elected, to “overhaul the program and put in place a new approach that will be based on putting the interests of children first”. The party has signalled it wants an “evidence-based case-management approach” to make sure the program isn’t “intrusive or punitive”. But it also says that ParentsNext will still be compulsory for eligible parents, which does little to ease the anxiety of those already on the program.

“Being a parent in our society is underappreciated as far as I’m concerned and single parents are treated like they’re scum,” says Rachel*, a sole mother of two who is trying to launch a business, an endeavour ParentsNext does not recognise as employment. “All the while our corrupt government gives tax cuts to the rich and have their hands in every pocket, taking advantage of everything they can and still making it harder for single parents to be able to support their children by putting obstacles in the way of them receiving their payments.”

For its part, the federal government has made no indication whether it plans to act on the findings of the senate inquiry, conceding only that it would “crack down” on providers that were found to have breached government guidelines. Whether this will fix the program’s problems will be something Jobs Minister Kelly O’Dwyer will soon have ample time to ponder. In January, the member for Higgins announced she would not recontest her seat in the next election.

She’s retiring from politics in order to spend more time with her young children. 

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "Pain in the Next". Subscribe here.

Clementine Ford
is a writer and speaker living in Naarm (Melbourne).