Date: Sun, 5 Oct 97 10:12:54 CDT
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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