THE following is an up front, candid Q&A interview with a single dad living in rural Victoria trying to make ends meet living on the single parents Newstart Allowance. Dealing with both physical and mental illnesses, this Dad vastly excluded form the workforce and has to go to extreme lengths to ensure the bills are paid and his young son is fed and watered.
I am a 37 year old single father living in a rural area of Victoria. My son and I reside by ourselves in a small, cheap rental unit in a small country town. I am unemployed due to several factors, struggle day to day with bills and living costs as well as 2 disabilities, one physical, the other a mental health issue.
How did you come to be a single dad?
My journey to becoming a single dad is one based on being the victim of domestic violence, and the failure of the mental health system. My former partner and myself were together for 14 years, married for 7. Theoretically we are still married, only separated, but there is no going back.
Not going into things too in depth, but I found myself exposed to all forms of domestic violence over those 14 years, to the extent that I believe I am lucky to be alive.
How did you come to find yourself on Newstart?
I had been on Newstart since before my son was born, due to a few reasons. The first was the Global Financial Crisis. I was working as the manager of a business that sold items of “luxury” nature, and people stopped buying “luxuries”, so my employment didn’t exist any more. Previous to this, I was trade qualified, but had a workplace incident that left me disabled to an extent that employers don’t want to hire me, and I can no longer practice my trade. ( I don’t “look” disabled, but my disability means I cannot do a lot of tasks associated with many jobs, and scares most employers off.) I also have a treated mental illness, Bipolar, of which I suffer the least severe version of, and which is considered stable.
How hard is it to get by on the small payment and please tell us some of the lengths you go to to make ends meet?
Although I currently get that bit more on Parenting Payment, I live payment to payment. I can’t afford much, although I have tried to set myself up so that my expenses are as low as possible. I do most of my shopping fortnightly, and thank goodness I can go to Aldi. If I bought the same things at Woolworths or Coles, it would cost me nearly twice as much for my groceries alone. If this was the case, I wouldn’t have enough and would have to rely on charity every week.
I suppose that I am fortunate in one way that my parents always struggled to make ends meet when I was growing up and I learnt how to make the most of limited resources. I don’t expect much, and live a fairly basic life. I cook or make all our meals from basic ingredients, apart from one meal a fortnight, which is a $10 fish and chips night. ( Usually the day I go shopping, because I am too exhausted to be bothered cooking !!)
I have also moved to a smaller neighbouring town to try and take advantage of cheaper rent, although I don’t have the convenience of the shops close by, only a small convenience store.
I have a Twin Tub Washing Machine to reduce my power and water bills, and this is quite a significant saving. We also skip days for showering if we can, and use clothing more than once before washing if possible also ( except underwear, you have to have clean underwear!!)
I skimp hard on heating, although we often get below zero temperatures in winter, I just can’t afford to keep the place warm, only using it if we are just so we can’t stand it any longer.
All our clothes, apart from underwear, are from op-shops and pretty much all of my furniture and electrical goods are secondhand, apart from our TV, which was a gift as a house warming present.
Although I do all of the above, when I get more than one bill at a time, I find it extremely difficult to get by, and lose a lot of sleep. My brother has helped me out on more than one occasion to pay stuff when I just haven’t been able, and my parents have also done so, although their capacity to do so is not great. They don’t expect it back, and I am eternally grateful to them, but it is crushing to your self esteem not to be able to live a normal life, where you can pay your bills. Demonising people in this position is not helpful, and does nothing to fix the situation.
Are you providing the kind of life for your child/children that you want to?
I would like to be able to provide more, but I think at this stage I am doing a pretty good job. We do a lot of things that don’t cost money or very little, like go to the park, getting secondhand toys and books, and making things out of empty boxes, plastic bottles and containers, and other things that make awesome and fun toys. I also make heavy use of our public library, where I borrow a lot of DVD’s and books, as well as CD’s. It is free, and this means we can have a little entertainment without cost, all it costs is a walk to the library. Our Library has a great collection, and has quite a lot of new release movies, so I don’t have to pay to borrow them from the Video rental store.
I do however worry about what will happen when my son goes to school, as I don’t want him to miss out just because a free education isn’t free any more.
In your view what defines a good parent and a good dad?
Well, to start with, a good parent attends to all their child’s needs, keeps them fed, sheltered and healthy. But it is more than just that. You need to feed their learning, you need to teach them what it is to be a responsible human being. You need to look after their emotional needs. You need to pick them up and give them a cuddle when they fall down. You need to help them discover who they are, and show them that you care for them and love them unconditionally. You need to inspire them.
And in the case where you are a single parent, you should never, ever, demonise the other parent in front of your children, as much as you may dislike the other parent.
As for being a good Dad, the same applies, I don’t think that parental responsibilities are altered with the sex of the parent, we are equally responsible for everything.
What are the challenges you face in becoming a working parent?
As I said before, I have a few challenges to actually becoming a working parent, and I realised a long time ago that my most probable solution to attaining employment is working for myself. I have confidence in being able to run my own business, but lack the funds to do so, and currently the time, as a toddler is a lot of work !!
To be honest, I would be deluded to think that I will gain employment working for someone else, I have tried for a long time to get another job, I have applied for hundreds of jobs, and I am more than qualified and have extensive experience to do the jobs I apply for. I have extensive business management skills, including book keeping, and naturally good with people. I have some quite high calibre references also, and have never been sacked; most of my former employers are close friends. I worked 6 or 7 days a week for nearly 20 years before becoming unemployed due to the GFC. Employers don’t want to hire a person who has back problems. ( I haven’t said before, but I actually broke my back in a workplace accident, and now live in constant pain, and if I take appropriate pain relief, which I don’t, I would be a zombie, so I choose to be able to function and just put up with the pain as best I can.)
In your view what should happen for single parents on Newstart?
For a start, if the government were serious about getting people off Newstart, they would actually pay more to start with. I know that their belief is that keeping it at or below the poverty line is an incentive to gain employment. It is not. None of us are here by choice, they need to understand that. Keeping people in poverty keeps them in poverty. If a jobless person can’t afford the cloths needed for an interview, or the costs to get to the interview, then they won’t get a job. If people are pre-occupied with trying to survive, they won’t get a job. Being in poverty is hard work. Being in poverty also makes it harder to maintain your health. Also, tertiary education to attain skills should be more readily available, I have been told by employment agencies to get an RSA or an RSG, but I would never get a job doing either because of my disability. I have wanted to get some sort of formal business qualifications or accounting qualifications, but I am at the mercy of emploment agencies, and they only want to provide you with qualifications they do in house, and most of these are for qualifications that would be beneficial to a teenager, not an older, disabled worker. I have even been put up for jobs that require heavy lifting by a Disabled employment services provider, even though I have restrictions on what I can lift !!!
And the availability of child care is a real issue. If government was serious about getting single parents into the workforce, they would be serious about providing childcare at not cost, which they don’t. So they are not serious about getting single parents off welfare, they are just using us for cheap political point scoring.
Why do you think governments refuse (so far) to improve support for single parents?
To put it plain and simple, they don’t care. Until we elect governments that have a social conscience, nothing will change. Single parents are easy targets to discriminate against, as society attitudes haven’t yet caught up with the realities of modern families.
What would you say to those in power who have no direct understanding of what it is like?
I think, to be honest, I would relay most of what I already have said in answer to the questions I have answered. I would attempt to try and give them an understanding of what it is like. Although, for it to actually make them think about it, would require them to have compassion, and I think this is lacking in most of our politicians currently. Because most of them have had a very narrow range of life experiences, and most of them have had a level of privilege higher than that of most in the community, it would be very hard to get them to understand the realities, because they haven’t experienced anything like it.
In saying all of that, I have had the opportunity to talk to a few politicians who have taken the time to listen, unfortunately, they are in political parties that are a long way from being in power.