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The welfare program leading single parents into poverty

ParentsNext participants worry their Centrelink payments will be cut. Images: Getty, ParentsNext

The government’s ParentsNext welfare program is having a “devastating” impact on Australia’s single-parent families and could even be worsening poverty, a Senate inquiry has been told.

The ParentsNext program is supposed to guide parents into employment, but has been called out as punitive and dangerous.

Parents are required to complete training for welfare payments with Centrelink payments suspended should participants fail to meet the requirements.

According to Guardian Australia analysis, one in five parents on the ParentsNext program have had their welfare payments cut within the first six months of the program.

“There are no circumstances in a single mother’s life where the prospect of payment suspension, reduction and/or cessation adds strength or stability to their family unit or aids ‘employment-ready’,” the National Council of Single Mothers and Their Children Inc. said in a submission of the enquiry into the program and its rollout.

The chief executive of the group, Terese Edwards commented at a public hearing in Melbourne today: “It is not a pathway into employment; it is a pathway into homelessness.”

The Council called for the government to rethink the punitive nature of the program and instead focus on investing in family-friendly jobs, building programs that reward those seeking employment and asking parents what assistance would be most appreciated.

‘ParentsNext is not working well’

Another submission from the Brotherhood of St Laurence put it simply: “ParentsNext is not working well.”

The group said the program is having “devastating” financial, physical and psychological impacts on parents and families.

Their submission argued the compliance framework is causing families “distress and hardship”, with the demerit system a particular stressor.

“Participants are having their payments suspended for inadvertent or unavoidable breaches, such as failing to report their attendance at an activity by 9 pm the same night, or because they couldn’t make it to an activity such as story time at the library,” the group explained.

“When you have young children, things don’t always go to plan. The early years are a crucial period of a child’s development – having the constant stress of compliance and the threat of payment suspensions hanging over a family can impact the home environment.”

And, warned the Brotherhood, the situation is even worse for families who are not proficient in English, those with poor digital skills or access to devices and internet connections, and Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander families.

“For families subsisting on wafer-thin budgets, payment suspension (delay of payment) means they cannot pay the rent that’s due, can’t transport their children to school, or need to rely on emergency relief to eat,” the submission read.

“Rather than being enabling, as was intended, ParentsNext is causing harm.”

Parents speak out

A father of two children on the autism spectrum said the program was fundamentally not in line with the stated aims.

In his submission, he said he had been told to bring his children to library reading sessions despite his concerns about the suitability of the sessions given his children’s autism.

He said the process of entering the program was also fraught.

“When I arranged the interview I explained I would have my 3 year old with me and she would require a safe place to play,” he said.

He said he was assured the interview space had children’s facilities, but upon arrival he found there were no safe play areas.

“It was stressful for me as I did not feel that my daughter was safe as there were various cords and cables,” he said.

“Because of this I could not concentrate on the paperwork i was asked to complete or the interview.”

Another parent told the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence how she was unable to pay her rent on time due to payment suspensions, while another said they were unable to make an appointment as she was waiting for her payments to be restored.

The inquiry is today hearing from the public in Melbourne.

The inquiry is tasked with assessing the aims of the program, its implementation and effectiveness.

A report is due on 31 March 2019.

– With AAP.

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