Comment: Let's talk about child support

(File: AAP)

Australia's single parent welfare policy has little interest in assisting parents to become financially independent.

The topic of single parent welfare is never far from public and political discussion, and it's generally portrayed as the problem of single mothers burdening the tax paying public. The inequality ingrained in the making of such polices is very rarely acknowledged or questioned, and this I believe is largely because the vast majority of people left negatively affected by them are not in a position to publicly raise their concerns or influence social policy.

The Child Support Agency (CSA), the federally funded body designed to dictate post-separation finances for costs of raising kids, has its own completely abstruse equations for assessments. Trying to make sense of them is virtually impossible with their use of incredibly subjective words and terms. But what can be deduced easily is the indisputable disparity in their delegation of costs. To annotate this, (and keeping mind, I had an amicable divorce, with no financial assets to separate) I’ll detail my own CSA assessment.

My ex-husband and I both work. He earns slightly more than me, has 14% custody of the kids, was arbitrarily assigned 24% of their costs, and is told to pay $63 a week in child support. I work 33 hours a week, have 86% custody, and am assigned the remaining 76% of costs. While I had pushed for equal custody at the time we separated, he was uninterested in more than fortnightly visits and moved away from Sydney to regional NSW.

I recently started a new job and required full-time before and after school care (OSH) for my two kids. The full annual costs including vacation care are well over $10,000, and I think those costs should be halved. For the first time since I originally called at the time of my marriage ending in 2009, I rang the CSA to discuss splitting both the cost of OSH and school fees. In short, I was told quite simply, “no”.

This was because neither my ex-husband’s children’s schooling nor out of hours care “directly benefits him”. Apparently the father shouldn’t be expected to contribute towards those expenses because he doesn’t personally gain any direct benefit. Despite the fact that he works full time, and had he actually had any more custody than every second weekend, he too would have to access OSH to work. What followed was more upsetting.

Having access to my own financial information, I was informed by the CSA representative that I earned so little, and with children so young, I could still apply for the Single Parent Pension. I replied that I knew that, and I wasn’t interested. The CSA representative went on to explain that as a single parent I was under no obligation to pay the public school fees, and that I should speak to the school about a reduced rate. She suggested I do the same for the OSH centre. In short she recommended I make myself a charity case and rely on the benevolence of others for the costs of raising my own kids.

She did tell me I if I was so desperate I could apply for a reassessment under "special circumstances" and that a review committee would assess the impact of halving costs, and whether it was likely to have a ‘negative impact’ my ex-husbands finances. She added that this would be a very unlikely outcome that would generally require a court order.

The phone call was confirmation of the unjustified prejudices that I imagine many other single mothers feel. There are assumptions made about people in my situation that are equally unfounded and hurtful and still heavily influence Australia welfare policy in this area. First, that you’re incapable and uninterested in your own financial independence, and constantly seeking to shift your responsibility onto the state or the benevolence of the public. And secondly, that as the mother you’re somehow more responsible for the existence of the children and should therefore accept the lion’s share of accountability for costs and care.

For all the other single parents, and particularly mothers in this situation, I want to draw attention to this inequality. Its time all of the costs and care of children were halved and the State stepping in to cover the short falls of the other biological parent were scrapped. This isn’t a slur on anyone requiring the single parent pension. I did while I studied. But I don’t now, and I make no comment or judgment on those who do.

In the media and politics, single parent welfare is synonymous with ‘single mother’, the terms are even used interchangeably. Why, in 2013, are mothers still left with such a disproportionate percentage of both costs and care? When will both parents be expected to equally contribute to raising their children? When will Australian media and politics recognise that single parents and mothers don’t want to be a charity case? And why can’t they see that setting such a disgracefully low expectation for fathers must undoubtedly have a negative impact upon their feelings of responsibility and onus to their offspring?

Australian welfare policy concerning single parents has very little interest in assisting parents to become financially independent. From all appearances it seems far more content to keep them pacified with petty welfare entitlements, locked into a cycle of poverty and dependant upon the charity of others.

It’s inexcusable.

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