ParentsNext program comes under fire from single mothers who say it ‘makes life harder’
Cara Weymouth and her son Ryland, 3, rely on a single parenting payment. (ABC News: Norman Hermant)
Thousands of single mothers across Australia have been moved onto the Federal Government’s ParentsNext program, but women like Cara Weymouth say it is making life harder and threatens to cost them the welfare payments they depend on.
- The ParentsNext program is under fire from single mothers for requiring parents to meet compulsory activities targets
- A demerit point scheme means parents risk losing Centrelink payments if they do not comply
- The Government says the program has had “overall positive results”
Ms Weymouth is juggling raising her sons Rydland, 3, and Josh, 9, with occasionally caring for her grandmother and working about 10 hours a week in online customer service to make ends meet.
As part of ParentsNext, she now has what the program calls a participation plan that sets out mandatory activities and appointments she must attend in order for payments from Centrelink to continue.
She said it has made life more stressful.
“It’s really frustrating,” Ms Weymouth said.
“On top of already being a parent, I have to … make sure that I’m completing this plan, or I can not feed my kids.”
“There’s always [something] in the back of your mind. What have I got to do this week, have I done it, when’s my next appointment, do I have my other son’s commitments on that day, what else is in my life, do I have to add to it. It’s not good.”
Despite having a degree in psychological science, Ms Weymouth has to make work fit around her family commitments.
Josh, 9, with his mother Cara and younger brother Ryland, 3, play at home in Melbourne. (ABC News: Norman Hermant)
Under her participation plan, Ms Weymouth is required to work 20 hours a fortnight, without much flexibility, but Rydland has an autism spectrum disorder, so she worries fulfilling the ParentsNext target may not be possible.
“If he’s sick or I can’t attend work because of his disability, it’s ‘too bad, how sad’ from the Government’s point of view,” she said.
If Ms Weymouth fails to work the hours set out in her plan, or if she misses appointments with her ParentsNext provider, she’ll accumulate demerit points. Once the points reach a certain level, the family’s Centrelink payment of $700 a fortnight could be cut off.
Cara Weymouth, 29, has two children to support on her single parenting payment. (ABC News: Norman Hermant)
According to the ParentsNext website, the program is designed to “help parents with children under 6 to plan and prepare for future study or employment”.
“You don’t have to look for work now. However it’s important to think about your study and work goals for when your children are school aged,” the website reads.
The Government said the program was designed to be flexible and it responded to the needs of participants.
It also said parents had 10 business days to consider their participation plan and agree to it and if they wanted to make a change, they could discuss it with their ParentsNext provider.
Exemptions are available if they are unable to fully participate due to “medical events”.
Parents required to take kids to swimming lessons, libraries
Since July last year, 73,000 parents nationwide have been moved onto the ParentsNext program. At least three-quarters of them are single mothers.
Each parent in ParentsNext has a participation plan and, as well as required work hours and meetings with program providers, they can be given a list of compulsory activities their children must attend.
Some plans require parents to take their children to story time at local libraries or to swimming lessons.
“It’s humiliating, actually,” Ella Buckland said.
The Lismore-based single mother was moved onto ParentsNext last September. This was despite having a university degree and plans to return to work once her five-year-old daughter starts school this year.
“The idea that an organisation can force [me] to take my child to swimming lessons, which I was already doing and paying for, then they can also ring and check up on me and make sure that I’ve been … doesn’t make me feel very good.”
Ms Buckland is a leading voice opposed to the program and has started a petition, Make ParentsNext Voluntary, which now has more than 20,000 signatures.
Government does not want Australians stuck in ‘life of welfare’
Jenny Davidson from the Council of Single Mothers said the ParentsNext program needed to change. (ABC News: Norman Hermant)
The scheme launched as a pilot program in 2016, beginning with 10 trial sites with high populations of Indigenous parents and early school leavers receiving Centrelink payments. It now operates all over Australia.
Labor and the Greens led a joint referral for an inquiry, which was approved by the Senate in December. Submissions for the Senate inquiry close today.
The terms of reference include examining the “aims of ParentsNext and the extent to which those aims are appropriate, having regard to the interests of participating parents, their children, and the community”.
Jenny Davidson from the Council of Single Mothers and their Children Victoria said the program did not do what it was designed to do.
“The program actually makes parents’ lives harder,” she said.
“This program is requiring them to jump through hoops to get their government benefits, but it’s not really making them more ready for the workforce.”
The Government said evidence showed ParentsNext was meeting its goals.
An evaluation in 2016 revealed participants had higher rates of wellbeing, more positive views about work, and higher rates of work, study and childcare usage.
Nearly 80 per cent of parents assessed increased their work readiness over the course of the evaluation period.
As part of the program, parents could receive a range of assistance such as help to access local services to address barriers to employment, according to the Government.
This could include assistance to access childcare, and services to address non-vocational barriers such as mental or physical health.
“The Government doesn’t want people and their families consigned to a life of welfare,” Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations Kelly O’Dwyer said in a statement.
“Whether it’s through education and training, work readiness activities, or other assistance, ParentsNext helps parents with the assistance they need to get back into the workforce once their youngest child turns six years of age.
“An evaluation of ParentsNext has shown overall positive results.”
The Senate inquiry is expected to report by the end of March.