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'Like in Mission Impossible': the Australian mum raising single parents' plight at UN

Juanita McLaren has good reason to remember 28 March 2017. That Tuesday, she and her three children had to vacate their rented flat in Melbourne. It was also her son’s birthday. He turned eight.

According to the government, it was cause to cut McLaren’s income support by about $170 a fortnight. She was out of work at the time so the change reduced her total income by about a quarter.

“It’s like in Mission Impossible, you know, where you have those futuristic screens that you can move around,” McLaren tells Guardian Australia. “I was constantly shifting, in my head, this bill and that bill. ‘I’ll get a payment plan for that, and I can pay that one later, and that one I’m just going to be in denial of because I just can’t even.’”

This week, McLaren told the United Nations commission on the status of women how, back then, she was “already $400 a month short”. She explained how she sold figs online to buy bread and milk; that she was doing a master’s degree so she could find a stable, well-paid job, and that she knew she couldn’t go on studying full-time when the government had cut her income support. She also explained how, as a single woman, she must ask another person to sign a statutory declaration to prove her relationship status in order to be eligible for the payment.

McLaren’s experience serves as the key case study in a human rights complaint brought against the Australian government by Terese Edwards of the National Council for Single Mothers and their Children.

Their grievances are multiple, but chief among them is what happened to McLaren on on that day in March 2017. Since 2012, single parents have been moved from the single parenting payment (now $384.25 a week) to the Newstart allowance ($297.55 a week) when their youngest child turns eight.

McLaren was joined in New York by Edwards and Cassandra Goldie, the chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Service. The UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, was there too.

“After over a decade of attacks on women on low incomes, starting with the Howard government in 2006, women in Australia are mad as hell,” says Goldie.

“We’re now in a situation where, despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, one in three single-parent families – overwhelmingly women-led – struggle from below the poverty line.”

The policy changes affecting single mothers date back to the Howard government’s 2006 “welfare to work” reforms. It changed the rules so parents whose youngest child is eight are pushed on to Newstart. The cut-off was previously 16.

John Howard’s changes were grandfathered but Julia Gillard did away with that in 2012. It meant a hit to the incomes of about 80,000 single parents, mostly women. In 2009, under Kevin Rudd, parenting payments were also decoupled from the rate of the pension – and therefore reduced.

While McLaren’s income support dropped by about $170 when her son turned eight, the total hit on the incomes of single parents is greater than that, academics say. Since 2006, the same single-parent family would have nearly 19% less disposable income due to government policy changes, according to one projection.

Back in the early months of 2017, it all added up to some of the toughest months of McLaren’s life.

“That time was so incredibly stressful. I was not sleeping, I was just hustling on a daily basis,” she says.

McLaren’s children were used to her “saying it’s a bit tight at the moment” but telling them they would have to find a new house made them really stressed, she says.

“They were talking about who they would have to go and stay with,” she says. “They were trying to problem-solve for me. At that time, one was 12 and one was 10.”

The government is free to ignore McLaren’s human rights complaint because Australia does not have a bill of rights, experts say. Indeed, the ParentsNext welfare program, which is compulsory for some people on parenting payment, also breaches Australia’s human rights obligations, according to the Human Rights Commission.

But McLaren hopes that by elevating the issue to the UN she can start a broader conversation about the treatment of single mothers in Australia.

She is as well-placed as anyone to start that debate – not just because she lived those changes, but because she has studied them, too. Last year, she co-authored a report that explored the impact of “welfare to work” policies on single mothers.

McLaren still needs to apply for jobs to stay in the Newstart system in case her casual work as a researcher ends abruptly. The last time she had to apply for the dole, she had to wait six weeks for income support. It took six months for her to recover financially.

She is still studying her master’s and should be done by the end of next year. And as she points out, she also works as a mother to her three children.

“When it started, the poverty thing, I was harder on myself than any troll I could come across,” McLaren says.

“I barraged myself. I didn’t value the work I was doing as a mother. By educating myself on the policy being unfair and looking at other women and saying, ‘gosh, they work so hard’, it gave me the confidence to know I was doing the right thing.”

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