Spring 2018

The cost of living

A single mother of three explains how anyone is at risk of suddenly needing welfare and how hard it can be to survive—let alone escape.

Seven years ago I was working full-time in a national management role while my husband of ten years stayed at home caring for our three sons under the age of seven. Then one day he left for another relationship.

Suddenly, the 48 hours we had as a couple each day to raise our kids was reduced to 24, with me having to wear many hats: primary carer, financial provider and household organiser. According to the Child Support system, the father of my children did not bear any financial responsibility as he had not been working for a few years, so I had to continue working full-time. About 18 months later, things took a sharp turn when the children and I got a serious flu. I used up all my sick leave, carer’s leave and most of my annual leave taking care of everyone, including myself.

I often told the kids that I had eaten a late lunch so that I could skip meals myself and feed them more.

Within a month of ‘the great sickness’, I couldn’t handle the strain of full-time work. I was exhausted, my confidence was shot and I was losing my temper with my kids. I resigned, with a plan to pick up contract work that would give me time to focus on the kids and getting back on track in life. Over that year, however, I found I needed to start accessing Parenting Payment for financial support. All the jobs available at my level were full-time and required travel. I applied for lower level roles with less pay, but was told I was overqualified.

Woman holding a baby.
Photo: Julie Johnson/Unsplash.

Eventually I went back to study a Masters. I thought studying would allow me the flexibility to be around for the children while making the transition to a new career, drawing on my established career for transferable skills that could get me better pay. It would be tough, but I’d find a way. Centrelink agreed to my studying but I would need to participate in the Welfare to Work program in order to stay on Parenting Payment Single, which paid a fraction more than Austudy.

I still needed to go to monthly meetings to comply with the job network agreement. But it soon became clear that they wouldn’t be able to help me with any meaningful transition back to work. The whole mutual obligation activity was reduced to a box-ticking exercise that required me to satisfy ever-increasing conditions to meet my obligations. I had to maintain 12 job searches a fortnight and ten hours a week of voluntary work because I wasn’t in paid work, all to prove that I was participating and therefore eligible for payments. All this while studying 30 hours a week and being the primary carer of three children in primary school.

The simple act of my youngest turning eight would mean I no longer had access to Parenting Payment and would be moved to Newstart Allowance for financial assistance—over $100 a fortnight less. With 9 months to go before this pivotal birthday and 18 months left of study, I needed to plan for the financial transition.

Despite my best efforts, within 3 months of instigating this master plan for our future financial security, the money I got from Centrelink was no longer sustainable. The children started missing out—I couldn’t afford for them to do sport, there was never enough food, and they just kept needing money for things like camp and excursions. I often told the kids that I had eaten a late lunch so that I could skip meals myself and feed them more. When my eldest started high school this year at a government school, I was still $1200 out-of-pocket just to get him through the front door, even after all the subsidised uniforms and fees.

Sometimes I sold figs from my tree on a local food growing facebook page to be able to buy milk, bread and eggs. The gap between my expenses and what I was actually receiving was about $400 per month, which I had to borrow from friends and family—I am still paying off payment plans to this day. I constantly felt guilty about pursuing this long-term plan and the effect it was having in the immediate time frame.

Then I received 3 months’ notice to vacate the house I was renting. On the day I was due to move out, my youngest son would turn 8 years old.

So here I was, an unemployed, full-time student and single mother with three sons, looking for a place to live. I was committed to staying near the kids’ schools, but with that came the expense of living in the inner west, where two houses came up each week in my price range and the same 20 to 30 people were attending each opening. I applied for a house after a friend tipped me off before the lease went public, only to be told that the owners were looking for a family with fewer children and at least two jobs.

Thankfully, I was at last offered a contract role for three days a week where I was doing my research placement, and it would start around my youngest son’s eighth birthday! This helped me secure a three-bedroom apartment just two weeks before my current lease was due to end. My best friend set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for the move.

DHS would probably like to think that I am a successful product of the Welfare to Work program—the financial, emotional, physical and mental impact the program had on me has certainly convinced me never to go back there. Most of the time, though, I reflect on how I was following a natural process of grieving, starting over, learning to be a single parent, and planning for my future and that of my children. I can’t imagine how I would have done it any other way, regardless of the conditions and pressures put on me by the various policies I encountered along the way.

Eighteen months down the track, I have finished one contract position and started another. My Masters degree is still unfinished, and I have missed out on jobs that I could easily do because of those elusive three units I am short to complete the Masters. Financially, I am still just getting by week to week, although I have been able to afford for the kids to participate in some extracurricular activities, and I have been able to put away a buffer of a month’s rent, just in case.

If Newstart can’t be increased, payments need to continue for at least a month or two beyond commencing a job to allow people who have started jobs after experiencing poverty to create a buffer and so not have to continually re-register when insecure jobs stop and start. Starting a job costs money too, and the call for more money isn’t a lifestyle choice, just as being on Newstart isn’t a lifestyle choice. The cost of living in this country continues to rise. The cost of living. Not partying, not pampering, just living.

Juanita McLaren is a single mother of three boys from Melbourne’s inner west and now commits herself to advocate for those in the social welfare system who may not have the voice to call out how crushing it is. You can read more about her lived experience of the entire system through www.powertopersuade.org.au.

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