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Jun 012014

Angie Hooper works to supplement her Newstart payment.

LOLLIPOP lady Angie Hooper dreams of a better job. One with decent pay and regular hours, so she can get off welfare and still collect her son after school. A job with holidays, sick leave — perhaps even an understanding boss who lets her stay home when Dylan’s sick.

The 32-year-old single mother from Melbourne has been stuck on the Newstart allowance, knocked back repeatedly for flexible jobs that fit around caring for a 10-year-old boy with no help from family.

Hooper works as a school crossing supervisor, paid $20 an hour for two hours’ work — with no holidays or sick leave. And she is worried sick about the Abbott government’s decision to cut her family payments.

“I’ve got experience in hospitality but they always need people on evenings and weekends mostly and I can’t work then,’’ she told Inquirer yesterday.

“I went for one job in a bowling alley where the manager told me that I’m exactly what he was looking for — except for the fact I’m a single mother because I would need time off when my son was sick and I’d be unreliable.’’

Hooper’s dilemma — trying to care for her son while competing against no-strings school-leavers and backpackers for scarce jobs — will be the achilles heel of Tony Abbott’s strategy to get more mothers back in the workforce.

The government will strip $7.3 million from family tax benefits across the next four years, giving low-income mothers a financial nudge to work harder, while offering high-paid breadwinners an incentive to keep their income low.

The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling at the University of Canberra has calculated the cuts will strip $122 a week from the budget of a single-income couple with two kids, earning $65,000.

The average-wage family will lose $1600 a year in Family Tax Benefit Part A, $3367 in Part B and $1392 in the School Kids Bonus. A single parent dependent on the dole, now receiving $32,855 a year in payments, will lose $4243 a year by 2017, plunging them below the poverty line.

The cuts are intended, according to budget papers, to “encourage increased workforce par­ticipation by primary carers when their youngest child reaches primary school age’’.

Or as Joe Hockey bluntly put it in his budget speech: “Staying at home should be a parent’s choice, but there are limits on how much support the taxpayer can give.’’

John Howard, the self-described “father of the family tax benefit system’’, has already proclaimed the cuts to be a tax increase. “Family tax benefits are not welfare payments, they’re tax breaks for couples who have children,’’ he said after the budget.

“We all know it costs money to have children and it never ends.’’

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick declared yesterday that forcing mothers back to work is “devaluing motherhood’’.

“We’re saying the work a woman does caring isn’t important,’’ she tells Inquirer.

“Who’s going to do the caring? Increasingly it’s not just about children, it’s about elder care. Who’s going to care for ageing parents and elderly neighbours? The fact is it’s got to be both men and women.’’

Broderick says mothers — and especially single parents — find it harder to get work because employers prefer the “24/7’’ worker with no family responsibilities.

“In workplaces in Australia, the ideal worker is available 24/7, has no visible caring responsibilities and the result is preferably a male,’’ she says.

“If you don’t fit the box it’s going to be more problematic to find a job.’’

Bob Birrell, a demographer with the Centre for Population and Research at Monash University, notes that mothers who have been out of the workforce for years will soon be competing for jobs against the under-30s — who are being denied welfare payments for six months — as well as 1.2 million backpackers and temporary migrants with work rights.

“They are desperate for work and willing to accept wages and conditions that mothers are not in a position to take on,’’ he says.

“The Coalition is proposing to force young people and mothers into a slack labour market at the same time as it is running a record high migration program.’’

Even if the jobs are there, working parents need to pick up their kids at 3pm or pay up to $30 a day for after-school care.

Parents get at least half that money back — more if they are on low incomes — but after-school and holiday care can be hard to find.

Australia has 3.6 million kids at school, yet only 208,000 attend before or after-school care and just 135,000 go to vacation care, which covers up to 15 weeks a year of school holidays.

In Sydney, parents have reportedly tried to bribe their way to the top of the waiting list. The National Out of School Hours Association estimates that after-school centres can cater for one in every three primary students.

“Ten years ago it would have been 10 per cent of the school and now it’s 30 per cent,’’ spokeswoman Kylie Brannelly says. “If demand were to go up to half the school, we would not have the infrastructure to do that.’’

High school students have no after-school care, so the only alternative for working parents is to knock off early or leave “latchkey kids’’ as young as 12 at home alone — which is illegal in some states.

The scarcity and cost of after-school care is the pragmatic reason so many mothers choose to work part time. Barely one-quarter of Australia’s working women have full-time jobs; the rest work an average of 17 hours a week.

The Grattan Institute has found the cost of childcare to be a powerful disincentive for mothers to work more than three days a week before their kids start school. A woman earning $40,000 a year with two children in childcare takes home $156 for three days’ work after tax and daycare fees. If she works a five-day week she takes home just $49 more for the extra two days.

Grattan Institute chief executive John Daley says the $100,000 cut-off for FTB will encourage breadwinners to cut back their hours or look for tax breaks.

“It gives substantial incentives to play silly games, working a few less hours so you earn just less than $100,000,’’ he says.

Workplace Gender Equality Agency director Helen Conway points out that mothers who work are less likely to retire in poverty, as they build up their superannuation. She lectures employers that those who offer a work-life balance and flexible hours will reap the rewards of loyal and appreciative staff, and a deeper talent pool. When mothers do head back to paid work, Conway argues, men must not lumber them with all the “homework’’ of domestic chores and childcare.

“Women naturally pick up the tab at home,’’ she tells Inquirer. “Burnout after a couple of years is not the ideal outcome.’’

Single mum and part-time La Trobe University law student Jessica van Dyk is fretting over how she will pay her bills without the Pensioner Education Supplement worth $31 a week. She volunteers at a legal centre, where other single mothers have confided that they regretted leaving their violent partners, “because it was better being beaten up behind closed doors than having to worry about how to feed their kids’’

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