The difficulties of sole mothers


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Content type
Family Matters article

April 1992


Using data from the Institute of Family Studies' Parents and Children after Marriage Breakdown study, the author examines the difficulties sole mothers encounter when they attempt to escape poverty by finding paid work.

It is commonly assumed that a sole mother and her children will be financially secure once the mother finds paid work. Emphasis is thus placed on job retraining for mothers who left the workforce to care for their children. Yet upon marital separation, the demands of the care of children will compete even more strongly with the demands of paid work, sole mothers having lost any daily child care support the fathers once provided.

'Although my ex-husband hadn't a lot to do with the discipline of the children, he supported me in all these things and I miss that badly.'

'I find the sole care of my children draining.'

'In view of my son's chronic illness, the divorce has put an extra strain on me that no money could compensate. It's the lack of support as well as the lost pay and effects on my career when I have to take time off to care for him.'

Such were the difficulties highlighted by some of the sole mothers who took part in the Parents and Children after Marriage Breakdown study, the Institute's 1987 follow-up study of parents who were divorced in the Melbourne Registry of the Family Court of Australia.

Poverty traps associated with sole-parent pensions are not only an additional barrier to paid work, but they also challenge the assumption that the family will escape poverty once the mother finds paid work. As Brownlee (1985) explained, the term 'poverty traps' refers to the combined effects of taxation and the social security income test. She noted that sole-parent pensioners working part- time can find that their jobs provide little if any financial improvement because of these effects, coupled with the work-related costs of travel and child care.

Pensioners lose 50 cents in every dollar of the pension for each dollar earned above a certain amount of earnings that is, $66 for a single parent with two children ($42 plus $12 for each child). Combined with income tax, effective marginal tax rates exceed 70 per cent over certain ranges of income.

However, if adequate payments are to be made only to people in need, then poverty traps are an inevitable consequence. Under such a targetted system, poverty traps cannot be eradicated, but measures can be taken to alleviate them. Policy makers are faced with the very difficult task of attempting to create a system which provides a safety net for families in crisis, but does not discourage sole parents from entering the workforce on a full-time or part-time basis.

The Institute's 1987 study is an excellent opportunity to assess the extent to which economic disadvantage persists in the long term. The parents in the sample had two children from their first marriage. Interviews for the initial Economic Consequences of Marriage Breakdown study took place in 1984 (some two to five years after separation). The follow-up interviews in 1987 were therefore some five to eight years after separation.

This analysis focuses on families headed by women who were not living with other adults (126 families in 1984, and 101 in 1987). The vast majority of sole mothers in the second survey were also sole mothers in the previous survey, while the remainder had had partners in 1984 and since separated, or they and their children had been living with other adults, such as parents, at the time of the first survey.

The accompanying table shows there was a decrease in the proportion of sole parents receiving pensions. The 1984 study found 91 per cent of sole-parent pensioners with supplementary paid work were 'poor' (with incomes less than 20 per cent above the poverty line), compared with just four per cent of sole mothers relying totally on paid work. In 1987, the proportions were 77 per cent and 12 per cent respectively. In other words, most sole mothers on pensions were unable to 'work their way out of poverty' by part-time work.

Social security and paid work status of sole mothers
per cent
per cent
Social security benefits only3629
Paid work only3649

The real meaning of poverty traps for these pensioners is best understood when past and present sole mothers describe their experiences. Their frustration at being constrained by the limits on income earned before the pension is affected was particularly apparent.

It is important to point out that the situation is better for sole- parent pensioners now than at the time of the survey. For instance, maintenance income and earned income are now subject to a separate test, the free income area is now indexed, and sole parents in full-time work can keep their pensioner fringe benefits for six months. In addition, the Jobs, Education and Training (JET) program has been established to help sole parents into the workforce and provide access to child care, and a $100 employment entry payment has been introduced for sole-parent pensioners whose earnings increase to over $228 per week, or who go off the pension to begin paid work.

'I feel helpless, insecure and looked down upon by others when on the pension. If I go out to full-time work, I don't get any pension and part-time is the same in that I lose dollar for dollar when I earn. It isn't feasible financially and it's a long day for the kids. If I stay at home on the pension, then holidays, going out, and extras for the kids are not on. If I go out and work a full working day, I don't get ahead because of the loss of pension and benefits. Working would be good to stimulate my own needs and be a happier person - a better mum - but I can't because I can't afford to. It's frustrating and humiliating.' [As illustrated here, some people find the income test difficult to understand.]

'I'm only able to earn $42 a week before the pension is affected. Where can you find a fixed part-time job earning this amount? A full- time job is out of the question when I have a young family and I'm single.'

'There was only a small income I could earn and keep my pension. This kept us poor. Including travelling costs to a job, the amount earned or allowed to be earned is quite unrealistic. Social security people must accept that most people must depend on social security during this period of their life, but I felt that because my marriage ended and I was on social security, I was seen as a no-hoper, a down- and-outer - something I didn't feel. When I stated I was in financial hardship, I was told other people manage. I don't believe anyone can manage on that amount - either they're getting help or substantially going without.'

'My children have suffered because of the lack of money brought about by divorce and the social welfare system. The welfare system does not allow the custodial parent to earn enough to maintain a good standard of living and education. That is why so many kids feel hopeless. We were very well off and there was a bright future for them whereas now everything is a struggle. Financial hardship forces us to act in ways we dislike. We are living under terrible threat from social security. We have no heating, laundry, etc. We can't buy new clothes - we are 'op-shop dressed'. Day-to-day living is a struggle. You are cornered whichever way you turn.'

'It's financially demoralising because, if you make extra money, social security takes away some of the benefits. There is no way for me to get ahead. It would be different if I was educated. If things break around here, they just don't get fixed. I waited six months to get the oven fixed because I couldn't afford to pay someone. The kids miss out on the extras because I can't earn the extra money.'

It is mothers who tend to be seen as dependent on public funding, rather than the children who have lost most of their father's financial support.

Decisions made in the marriage for mothers to forsake careers to care for children have been extremely costly for these families upon separation. Funder (1991a) indicated that a lack of qualifications and the presence of young children were barriers against these women returning to the workforce. Many mothers felt they ought to be home when their children came home from school and during the school holidays, and that this would not be possible if they were employed. These dilemmas are captured in the following comments:

'There is so little money on Supporting Parents' Benefit - it's a constant struggle. The only alternative is to go out to work full-time, but it's a constant trade-off - money for the things the children want or time for me to spend with the children. How can you develop a career and have children?'

'If I went back seven years, I would have fought to get the financial rights that I and my children were entitled to. Supporting children and developing one's self are far more difficult than I at first imagined. I worry about the time I spend away from the children.'

'I have been looking for suitable work, but it is difficult to find, and I prefer to be home when the children return from school. I have a good relationship with the children and feel I could lose this if I'm forced into a job which carried attendant worries about the children's welfare after school and during holidays.'

However, some of those with full-time jobs found them personally rewarding, and believed that these benefits flowed on to the children:

'I was lucky in that I got a good job when I separated. I couldn't possibly manage on only the Supporting Parents' Benefit and I couldn't stay home depressed; you need a job for therapy, too. It's worth paying for creche and child minding because a job gives you self esteem. This is very important because after a divorce you feel a failure. If I'd stayed home and received the Benefit, I think I wouldn't have coped as well with my children.'

Further, sole-parent fathers continued to work full-time, while caring for their children. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the labour force participation rates of sole-parent fathers are much greater than those for sole- parent mothers, even when age of the youngest child is controlled. Fathers are also much more likely to work full- time than mothers (ABS June 1990). The Institute's survey showed that work for women after marriage breakdown (like work for men) is primarily a function of their work at the time of the marriage breakdown, with those not employed at this time being less likely to be in paid work post-separation than the employed. Post-separation poverty, then, can be traced to pre- separation work status. These trends reinforce the need for measures to assist mothers to re- enter the workforce.

As Funder (1991b) explained, the sole-parent pension is a safety net for sole parents while they have no other means of support, such as income from full-time employment. However, poverty traps, coupled with children's continuing needs for care, can increase the length of time the family will remain entirely dependent on welfare. For the children, the associated experience of poverty can amount to a large slice of their childhood. Indeed, research in Australia, Great Britain and the United States indicates that such poverty is likely to result in career disadvantages for the children, thereby increasing their chances of living in poverty when adults (Kilmartin and Wulff 1984; McLanahan 1991).

The topic of poverty traps is a complex one, and a number of initiatives relevant to sole-parent families have been introduced over the last few years.


  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (June 1990). Labour Force Status and Other Characteristics of Families, Australia. Catalogue No. 6224.0.
  • Brownlee, H. (1985), 'Poverty Traps', Australian Tax Forum, Vol.2, pp161-172.
  • Funder, K. (1991a), 'Australia: a proposal for reform', in Maclean, M. and Weitzman, L.J. (eds), Economic Consequences of Divorce, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp.143- 161.
  • Funder, K. (1991b), 'Sole parent pension', Family Matters, No.28, April.
  • Kilmartin, C. and Wulff, M.G. (1984), 'Educational and labour force participation of Australian people living in two- and one-parent families', Journal of the Australian Population Association, Vol.1, pp.121-139.
  • McLanahan, S. (1991), 'The intergenerational consequences of divorce: the United States perspective', in Maclean, M. and Weitzman, L.J. (eds), Economic Consequences of Divorce, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp.285-310.