Time for equality for single parent families

New analysis has emerged that women will be worse off as a result of the 2014 Federal Budget and single mothers will be particularly badly affected. This is very troubling given the struggles that single parent families already face. In Australia, one in five families are single parent families and most of these (87%) are headed by women. Around 20% of Australian children  grow up in a sole parent family. 

My doctoral research on women in low paid, insecure jobs included many women raising children alone. Being a single parent is the pathway into such jobs because that is the only type of work that enables caring to the extent that many women consider desirable and practicable. Mary, a single parent with two older children, and involved in local politics who participated in a focus group I held, made the following comment about the compromises a single parent makes, reflecting the outlook of other women in the study:

I have been a sole parent for 14 years now. Our priorities are our children and it has to be because you’re the sole adult in the household. Regardless of what age they are, they depend on you. The thing that stands out for me is that regardless of how many skills you have and how many degrees you have, or how ambitious or motivated you are, you have to compromise your ambitions because you are restricted by your child caring and rearing role because that is your first priority. So that you always need something (a job) that allows you the flexibility around your children’s hours when they are younger and then even as they get older… I have made a lot of compromises. When you are working part time regardless of how many qualifications, skills and degrees you have, part time status gives you a different level of interaction professionally.

As the sole adult in the household, there are added pressures around care and supervision, with the supervision requirements continuing well into the teen years. Advancement at work and professional development are difficult to achieve in such a situation. Moreover, as Mary says, being a part time worker itself affects relationships to work and in the workplace affects possibilities for occupational progression.

So there are large economic disadvantages that accrue to such families. This finding is consistent with what sociologist Gosta Esping-Andersen (2009) says in his important book which takes on some of these issues – The Incomplete Revolution. Adapting Welfare States to Women’s New Roles – that there is growing polarisation between married households and single parent households

There is a line of argument that children do better where both a mother and father are present – a debate canvassed in a recent article in the Conversation.  But of course this is an outcome where community life has been eroded so there is reduced potential for the “village to raise a child” – so children may do better in two parent families because it lends such enormous advantages in terms of material resources and other types of social capital. But this scenario is largely socially constructed as well as placing huge and unnecessary burdens on other family types.

It is worth recalling that through human history, fathers were often absent from families due to wars, trade or work far from home, and lost due to any of those factors too. Mothers could be absent due to high rates of death in child birth but I suspect there was always a higher rate of absent fathers. And of course, either mother or father had a high risk of mortality  due to diseases such as consumption (TB) before the antibiotic revolution.  I wonder how common a stable, nuclear family with a present and able biological mother and father really was for many children over the course of their childhood prior to the 20th century.

I do believe that it is high time that this immense economic and social polarisation which is engendered by the privileging of certain family types in economic and employment constructs is tackled – and we have a society where children do equally well regardless of what family situation they are raised in.

IMF head, Christine Lagarde again has recently spoken of the importance of raising opportunity for women for overall social and economic progress. The uplifting of single parent – mother – families will be a core task in the achievement of women’s equality and the immense benefits this will confer.

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