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Why single Mums make us uncomfortable

Amy Gray
Published: January 17, 2013 - 7:07AM

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 of debauched gluttony and lascivious schadenfreude: they cheat on welfare, they have children to different fathers, they’re lazy and don’t want to work! 

The most recent example of such hostility can be seen in the form of slashing 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 people on his lawn by expressing the belief that increased payments for women would be good ... just 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 and support that validate your worldview. Some people even call it privilege.

So, as the designated single mother, let’s 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, violence from living in low-income areas or stress or just shitty parenting, and 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 single parent families with two parent families who despise one another (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 are 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 was 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 is a higher risk of abuse in homes led by single mothers more than any other demographic in Australian society. Even though the states and territories record family types differently, there is enough data to suggest this is a risk area.

However, the 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.

Single mothers need less money so they will be encouraged to work more

According to recent policies and 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:

So, the plan is to convince those single mothers 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 17.4% 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 are bad parents who make bad choices with food, entertainment and men
Does this happen? According to global statistics, yes… on the surface. Kids from single parent homes eat less fruit and vegetables and watch more tv.  A recent study suggests that the complicating factor is not due to the fact they have one parent (and a bad one at that) but that, due to poverty and moving to less secure suburbs, single parents actually don’t want their children to exercise outside and face the threat of violence. 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 haven’t published anything yet.

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 (ABS 1998: 106)”.

Teenage girls are baby crazy single mother machines jonesin' for a bonus
Australian Institute of Family Studies data places teen mums as making up 8.3% of first time mums in 2008, a 4% 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%. The calling to place teen mothers in hostels, given the recent inquiries into state and charity-based care, seems ignorantly callous and pointless.

An interesting bigotry is on display when we discuss single parent families. Women are portrayed as poor victims and abusers and men are either treated as invisible or suspected pedophiles and family bashers. Rather than tackle the causes of stress, insecurity and poverty, we appear to be obsessed with demonising the people 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 have been knocked back for work and promotions and faced discrimination in previous jobs because I am a parent. My child isn’t fat because I am unable to afford a car so we pay extra on rent to live closer and 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 and, as for subsequent no-good boyfriends, well, I’d never say such things in public. I haven’t abused her yet but, obviously that’s only matter of time.

There are many parents who have not been as fortunate 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 is not a solution to the problem for them or the country.

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