The single parenting payment increase doesn't go far enough
As a single parent to six-year-old Luna, Sheridan Rowe says her life is a fine balance between working as much as she can to pay the bills and finding some space so she can be a decent parent.
Single parents typically reduce their working hours and income to care for their children.
At the same time, they bear many - or all - of the costs of running a home, such as rent or mortgage, home and contents insurance, transport, medical bills and childcare.
"Everything is on you," says Rowe, who doesn't receive any financial support from Luna's father.
It's a similar story for Sarah King, single mother of two-year-old Amelia, who says doing everything on your own can lead to burnout.
"It's a snowball effect," she says, adding that once Amelia is asleep and the house is tidied, life can also be lonely.
Of the one million single parents in Australia, 81% are mothers. Almost all are treading water and it is difficult for them to get ahead.
This year's federal budget acknowledged that single parents carry the weight of the world on their backs.
"They sacrifice so much to give their children a better life," said prime minister Anthony Albanese, himself raised by a single mother.
In a boost for many, from September 20, the cut-off age for the parenting payment for single parents will lift from eight years to 14, for the youngest child. This will increase the maximum basic rate of payment for eligible parents and carers from its current $745.20 to $922.10 a fortnight.
Jenny Davidson, chief executive of the Council of Single Mothers and their Children (CSMC), says while the increase will help many families, it won't go far.
"Those on JobSeeker will have an extra $20 a week, which isn't going to go very far in the current economy," she says. "Rental assistance has also gone up by 15%. All these things will help. We're very grateful. But with the cost-of-living crisis going on, it won't take a lot of pressure off families."
Not surprisingly, around 88% of single mothers are concerned about their financial wellbeing and are finding it difficult to meet their living expenses, according to the latest CSMC report.
Davidson says the CSMC's services have never been busier, and it had to dip into the next financial year's emergency relief months ago. It provides a range of support services and has been going for more than 50 years. It is funded by the Victorian government and private donations.
"Whether they're working full time, part time, or whether they're providing essential unpaid care and relying on the social security net, single mothers are worried about their financial wellbeing," says Davidson.
"We know these are the women at risk of homelessness in older age. Even when women are working, their long-term financial wellbeing isn't assured."
Coinciding with the changes to the parenting payment are more generous childcare subsidies, announced last year, that will commence from July 10 this year. Around 1.26 million families will benefit and there will be higher subsidies for school-age children in care outside school hours.
There are calls by organisations such as the CSMC to improve the child support payments that in many instances are paid at a minimum rate or not at all. Single parents, such as Rowe, often don't have the benefit of a second earner to contribute to the cost of their child's upbringing.
Davidson says research by the CSMC found some parents have rearranged their tax affairs to avoid paying child support. It found that single parents are owed a total of about $2 billion in unpaid child support and that there is a cottage industry around people not declaring their true income to avoid child support payments.
King receives $21 a day from the father of her daughter, Amelia, and says she is lucky to get it. She knows plenty of single mothers who get less or even nothing.
Certainly, people who earn cash, are paid through family trusts or partnerships, or are members of an extended family, aren't assessed for child support. As well, there are thousands of people who don't put in their tax returns for years to avoid paying child support. Sometimes, a new partner puts pressure on the paying parent to stop paying more than the bare minimum to the ex-partner.
Dealing with ex-partners and being a sole carer of an unsettled baby who won't sleep can be exhausting, stressful and lonely. Emergency support services such as Lifeline, the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby helpline or parent lines in each state can offer help. Both King and Rowe say these organisations have been a godsend.
Bargains and benefits
King, who had a successful career in logistics for 20 years, has opted to work part-time while her daughter is young. She shops at Aldi and markets, and searches for free events to make her money last. She mixes her income with government benefits to get by.
Rowe has an established job with an insurance company. Flexible work and understanding employers are essential.
Both mothers regularly dip into single mother groups on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook for useful advice about keeping costs down and special price deals. They make use of government benefits such as healthcare cards to receive cheaper medicines and health services.
"I found things that I didn't know previously, such as I could get 50% off my water bill, a 25% discount on my electricity and gas as well as up to $600 a year paid on your electricity and gas bill," says King.
Rowe finds there are little things that ease the stress, but she would like more community resources and support where she lives. Paying a babysitter is out of the question, so nights off from parenting are non-existent.
Navigating government benefits such as the Family Benefit, parenting payments and rent assistance for single parents can be complex. The CSMC offers a phone service for single mothers all around Australia, even though it is based in Victoria.
What to do about housing
In the middle of a housing and rental crisis, it can be a huge challenge for single mothers to find suitable accommodation.
The Council of Single Mothers and their Children (CSMC) recommends they get a family member to act as guarantor to compete in the private rental market.
Jenny Davidson, the CSMC's chief executive, says its share house register - which helps women find other women who may have rooms to rent - is growing.
In a movement known as "mommunes" in the US, women are joining forces under one roof, splitting the household bills and raising their children together, even though they often have different parenting styles.
Saving a deposit on a single income is nearly impossible. There are some schemes to help single parents buy a home, such as the Family Home Guarantee from the federal government, which can be accessed with as little as a 2% deposit and without having to pay expensive lenders mortgage insurance (LMI). Thirty-two lenders have been cleared by the government to offer the home guarantee scheme and 5000 places are available every year until 2025.
Single parent Sheridan Rowe borrowed funds from Keystart, which provides transitional loans (without LMI) for people on lower incomes, to buy a block of land and build a house. "It helped me get my house. I'd given up all hope and it was getting mentally challenging," she says.
Interest rates have soared, which is a big strain. But at the same time, the value of the property has grown so she has a higher equity in the home.
Davidson has seen shared equity schemes where women buy homes together. "It's a good model, because you have to come up with a smaller deposit," she says.
Servicing smaller loans can be the same as paying rent, but still women have to squirrel away the deposit.
"We need more women to have these sorts of assets," she says. "If they're not going to have a lot of super, at least having a home with or without a mortgage will assist you in your older age."
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