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Date: Sun, 5 Oct 97 10:12:54 CDT
From: NY-Transfer-News@abbie.blythe.org
Subject: Women: Choice or Poverty Trap? - GL Wkly
Via NY Transfer News Collective * All the News that Doesn't Fit

". . .and ain't I a woman?" Choice or poverty trap?

By Lisa Macdonald, in Green Left Weekly
#292 (28 September 1997)

"Break-ups 'the main cause of poverty'", announced the September 22 Sydney Morning Herald - a remarkable statement at a time of enormous unemployment and underemployment, declining real wages and health and welfare service cutbacks.

The article reported on research conducted by Monash University's Centre for Population and Urban Research which reveals that the number of poor families in Australia rose from 31.7% in 1991 to 43% in 1996. The study shows that half of that rise is due to an increase in the number of working poor, but the other half reflects the growing number of sole-parent families.

By 1996, 84% of sole-parent families, almost all of which were [heade]d by women, were "officially" poor (income less than $249 a week). According to the Herald, the researchers found that twice as many poor families receive the Additional Family Allowance on the grounds that they are sole parents as on the grounds of unemployment. They therefore concluded that family breakdown is the "main cause of poverty".

John Howard must be delighted. This is a boost for his campaign to reassert the idea that the nuclear family is the "strongest" fabric of a healthy society and to create the spectre of social breakdown precipitated by divorce, too many single mothers and sexual promiscuity.x The findings that the Herald did not put into ines, however, indicate the real cause of increasing poverty.

For example, in 1996 almost half of sole parents were living in the private rental market. Since 84% of these families are in great need of cheaper accommodation, the previous Labor and current Howard governments' attacks on public housing provision must be hitting sole parents especially hard.

The research also shows that only 42% of sole parents receive any maintenance from the non-custodial parent. With pensions for sole parents set at just 25% of average weekly earnings, the only way out of poverty for these women is to find secure, well-paid work. The most significant finding of the research (also not reflected in the ine) is that this is not happening.

Between 1991 and 1996, the number of employed persons in Australia increased by 637,000, women taking up almost 60% of these (predominantly part-time and casual) jobs. During the same period, however, 638,787 more families received the Additional Family Payment, two-thirds of them sole-parent families.

Already suffering an unemployment rate more than three times that of two-parent families, single mothers missed out on most of the jobs created over the last five years, say the researchers.

Almost all other research on poverty shows that its principle cause is unemployment. For the average woman, whose wages are still only 67% those of men, divorce does lead to a drop in income. Where children are involved, that drop is often straight into poverty.

However, it is not the divorce per se that leads to this end but the fact that single mothers are unable to find a suitable, secure and adequately paid job.

For many years, the Councils of Social Service around Australia have documented the discrimination faced by sole parents in applying for work. Now, even if they overcome this discrimination, the Coalition's slashing of community child-care funding and child-care fee increases will exclude even more sole parents from the possibility of earning a wage. The Herald ine lied. It is not family break-up that is the problem; the legal right of women to leave unhappy and often abusive marriages was a hard-won victory which must be uncompromisingly defended.

The real problem is that this formal right is still not a genuine option for hundreds of thousands of women whose prospects, if they do exercise it, are unemployment and poverty.

The poverty of the majority of single mothers condemned to survive outside the work force would be wiped out simply by increasing the level of government benefit. This an immediate and obvious solution.

It is only when good quality, accessible child-care services and secure, flexible, well-paid jobs are available to all that women will be able to choose their living arrangements without fear of destitution for themselves and their children.

Six-month airmail subscriptions (22 issues) to Green Left Weekly are available for A$80 (North America) and A$90 (South America, Europe f Africa) from PO Box 394, Broadway NSW 2007, Australia http://www.peg.apc.org/~greenleft/ e-mail: greenleft@peg.apc.org