The truth about single mums


There seems to be a special place in the embers of hostility for single mothers. Perhaps it scrambles our view of traditional parenting, our view of how women should be. Instead of recognising the work and sacrifice these parents make, we content ourselves with demonising them through tabloid tales: they cheat on welfare, they have children to different fathers, they’re lazy, they don’t want to work! 

The most recent example of such hostility can be seen in the form of the slashing of parenting payments and panicked moralising of online editorial. John Hirst, writing for The Age, appears to alternate between historian and social commenter, disturbed by the presence of those who believe that increased payments for women would be good ... as long as we could trust them to parent well.

Such commentary is often divorced from personal experience or in-depth reading of statistics. It’s an easy task to blithely admonish women who allegedly rear their children on a diet of “daytime tv [and] junk food”, surrounded by a succession of “no-good boyfriends” when you’re in a nice home, surrounded by people who support and validate your worldview. 

So, as the designated single mother, I'm going to make it a fair fight. Let’s actually look at the popular myths and see where they stand against statistics and policies.

Single-parent homes aren’t good for children
This is a favourite line for many when they want to claim traditional family values. And it’s true – single-parent families are statistically more likely to experience poverty thanks to reduced income, more likely to experience violence from living in low-income areas, and to have reduced education and health outcomes (see again low income). They don’t mention the statistics about the devastating affect on children who grow up in two-parent families where abuse and addiction is prevalent, and they don’t cross-reference the statistics against two-parent families where the adults despise each other (apparently that’s not a noted variable yet). 

In fact, numerous studies show that children suffer more from the separation of parents than the death of a parent. Why? Here’s an idea: conflict. The conflict leading up to and following a separation is more damaging to a child’s development. Placing a child in an environment that features hostility and poverty is damaging, no matter what the parental status of the family.

What have we learned? Kids don’t grow up well in conflict or poverty. They are the true factors that stain childhood development, not a parent’s marital status.     

Kids from single parent families face more abuse
According to research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, abuse is most likely to take place in the homes of single mothers (33.7%) and intact two-parent (32.4%) homes. The statistics do suggest there's a higher risk of abuse in homes led by single mothers than any other demographic in Australian society. Even though the states and territories record family types differently, there's enough data to suggest this is a risk area.

However, researchers note that this figure may be exacerbated due to poverty and isolation, which are known contributors to child abuse. Given this correlation, the decision to reduce welfare payments seems culpable.


So, yes, abuse happens. Are the determining factors parental status or poverty and isolation? Logic would suggest the latter.

Giving single mothers less money will encourage them to work more
According to recent policiesand editorial, giving single mothers less money is just the thing to force them into work. It seems like a neat piece of logic until you consider the impacts:

  • mothers who work more take on further costs for transportation and childcare
  • mothers face discrimination in the workplace (according to Victorian equal oppourtnity commissioner Helen Szoke and ABS data), which shows that mothers receive negative comments from colleagues and managers, miss out on promotions or have their roles and hours arbitrarily changed without consultation
  • this does not take into account the discrimination single mothers face trying to actually find employment in the first place. 

So the plan is to convince those single mothers, who are struggling in poverty, to get off welfare and try to find a job, take on increased cost to be able to work (and let’s not forget the 17.4 per cent gender pay gap), and overcome a system prejudiced against hiring them is to slash their payments? We’re going to slash the payments of families who are already in poverty? 

Single mothers make bad choices with food, entertainment and men
Does this happen? According to global statistics, yes ... on the surface. Kids from single parent homes do eat less fruit and vegetables and watch more TV than others. But a recent study suggests that the complicating factor isn't due to the fact they have one parent, but that, due to poverty and moving to less secure suburbs, single parents actually don’t want their children to exercise outside, where they face the threat of violence. Put simply, keep a family poor and they'll have poorer outcomes. 

I searched the Australian Bureau of Statistics for rates on single mothers and bad boyfriend choices, but they have yet to publish anything on that topic.

Jobless single mothers on welfare raise welfare recipients
While intergenerational welfare is a reality, it should be analysed with caution: the ABS Survey of Employment and Unemployment Patterns (SEUP) collected information from a group of job-seekers over a period of several years. While it shows that children of welfare recipients are more likely to receive welfare later in life, it also indicated that a “father’s employment appears to be have been more influential on young people’s employment outcomes than mother’s”.

Teenage girls are baby-crazy and just want the baby bonus
Australian Institute of Family Studies data places teen mums as making up 8.3 per cent of first time mums in 2008, a 4 per cent reduction since 1991. In fact, the biggest statistical shift for new mums has been for the 30-34 year old demographic, which jumped from 18.1 to 27.6 per cent. The call to place teen mothers in hostels, given the recent inquiries into state and charity-based care, seems ignorantly callous and pointless when their numbers are actually in decline.

An interesting bigotry is on display when we discuss single-parent families. Women are portrayed as poor victims and abusers, while men are either treated as being invisible or as suspected pedophiles and family-bashers. Rather than tackle the causes of stress, insecurity and poverty, we appear to be obsessed with demonising the people who are suffering, without adequate support.

I’m a single parent. I’m also intensely lucky – there is privilege in my life, thanks to a middle-class upbringing and access to meaningful work from two jobs. There are times when I've been knocked back for work and promotions, and have faced discrimination in previous jobs because I'm a parent. My child isn’t fat because I'm unable to afford a car, so we pay extra on rent to live closer to amenities so we can walk everywhere. We live on a restricted food diet for the same budget purposes. We do watch a godawful amount of TV, but she also reads three grade levels above, and plans to be a physicist. Her father is an amazing and equal parent. As for subsequent no-good boyfriends, well, I’d never say such things in public. I haven’t abused her yet but, according to the stereotypes, obviously that’s just a matter of time.

There are many parents who haven't been as fortunate as I am, and have thanked the meagre blanket welfare has afforded them. Coming up with plans to lock them away or push them further into poverty and depression isn't a solution to the problem, for them or the country.