Walking the tightrope


There was a time, some years ago, when I came to really appreciate novelist Fay Weldon. I admired the way her protagonists suddenly switch from affluence to disaster, and then, fairy-tale like, occasionally return to prosperity. This was at a time when I needed to believe in such fairytales. Weldon is the ideal novelist for sole parents, because more than any other writer since Dickens, her subject matter covers the sheer absurdity and fragility of the way life can teeter from affluence to disaster, all on chance.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

The difference between success and failure, between the opportunity to land on a safety net or fall into a black hole is all a matter of timing. My timing was impeccable. Bob Hawke was Prime Minister. The proclamation that no child should live in poverty was followed by serious support for low income families. There was proper integrated support for sole parents. When I unexpectedly discovered that I was indeed a single parent there was not only a safety net, but an assurance that it would not be suddenly whipped away. Because of the support I received then, I am today one of the winners in the latest Howard budget. I have paid more in tax than I ever received as a pension. In marked contrast are those suddenly single parents today, who, having the misfortune to time their relationship breakdowns under a Howard government, are being set up for disaster.

The original Supporting Mother’s Benefit was a Whitlam government initiative. Originally it was paid after a woman was alone and unsupported for six months, which was hardly great but at least it was better than nothing. It was the Fraser government that created the modern Supporting Parent’s Benefit to include fathers, and made it immediately available to parents on the basis of need, without discrimination between ‘respectable’ widows and the rest (Link here ). It was given on the assumption that children needed care for longer than their pre-school years, a recognition that when families break down, parents need to be around for their children. The Hawke government extended benefits to create an Additional Family Payment for people on low incomes.

No pension is a huge amount of money, but these changes in government policy precipitated major cultural changes. Single women, who previously were bullied into adopting out their babies ‘for the best’ could keep their children, and did. The availability of the pension made the end of a bad marriage easier to manage. While urban myths grew about women deliberately falling pregnant for money, the reality is that most women’s total time on the Supporting Parent’s Benefit was reasonably short. Even in the 1980s it was hardly enough to support a family in comfort. But it was a safety net. It was there to prevent families from living on the street, or begging for food. It was there to give a sense that when push comes to shove, the job of government is to ensure that its citizens do not starve, that children have clothes and a chance for a future.

For most people the changes in ways and means of supporting the underclass are purely theoretical. However I am constantly surprised at the number of women who share my experience of having bounced on the safety net. For me, the bounce happened because I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Literature Board Grant, paid over two financial years before going back on the pension when my book was finished. There was another bounce caused by writing art criticism for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Bulletin. I became an art critic because as a single parent with small children I needed a job where I could mainly work from home, even though the money was spasmodic and the pension an essential part of my income. Money was tight – I learnt to recycle teabags, drink powdered milk and turn off the heating after the children went to bed.

There were other costs in being a part of the underclass. When one of my children developed classic symptoms of dyslexia her teachers refused to believe that it was possible for her to be taught to read – children of the poor are supposed to be at the bottom of the class. It was only after I was able to have her privately tested that I was able to get her into the excellent Macquarie reading program.

Because government policy was supportive, it was possible to use the pension as a base for building a career. I started a PhD. Writing led to casual teaching at university, which was financially even more unstable as the official academic year for sessional teachers is only twenty eight weeks. The safety net paid when the money stopped and sessional teaching was a necessary prelude to the relative security of a contract lectureship.

If I had not been given the sense of a layer of protection then it would have been impossible to risk further study with its commitment of time and effort. Without a pension to pick up the down times, I would have had to aim for a less flexible, and less well paid, form of employment.

Now that I have a full-time job I am immunised against some of the more lunatic rules of government that affect all low income Australians, whether partnered or single. Past governments paid various allowances that recognised adolescents as seriously expensive additions to any household. They eat more than adults. They grow two shoe sizes in the space of six months and their clothes follow suit. Yet now government support is focussed heavily towards the preschool years. It is hardly surprising then that the children of the poor tend to leave school early and so prepare to spend their lives in some form of the underclass.

There were too many jokes about Mark Latham’s ladder of opportunity in the last election. Yet he had the right idea about helping people out of black holes and keeping safety nets for when times go bad. Maybe we need another metaphor, or perhaps a less punitive mindset.

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