I did it, so why can’t you?

The National party has made good on its promises, and released a new and punitive welfare policy, aimed at all those wretched sole parents who depend on the Domestic Purposes Benefit for subsistence. The overt aim of the policy is to “assist” sole parents into paid employment, but the implied aim seems to be to characterise sole parents as lazy good for nothings who can’t be bothered working.

And on cue, commentators have popped up letting us know just how hard they worked when they were young chaps. From DPF:

Like Duncan I cleaned a store while at school. But I was 14 and got $1.99 an hour for cleaning at Woolworths. I was so proud to be in regular employment, working every day after school plus Friday nights and Saturday mornings. And my first job after university was $22,000 a year only and at one point I was working part-time for $18,000 a year.

And via DPF, a similar story from Duncan Garner:

I often get accused by some who say I’m a media hack and what would I know about low-paid work?

Well I know something. I know I cleaned the Whitcoulls Queen Street store at 16 in my school holidays for youth rates – about $4.50 an hour at the time. I powder-coated curtain rails for $6.00 an hour in a Glenfield factory a year later. I put lids on toothpaste at the Avondale Redseal factory at the same time to help me pay for my first year at university.

My first job at TVNZ in 1995 was as an intern and I was paid $15,400 a year – about $250 a week from memory. A year later they put me on $21,000. By year three it was $30,000.

I worked like a slave for $250 a week. Try living on that in Auckland – it was impossible.

They were part-time crappy jobs (not the TVNZ one) – and they sure as hell encouraged me to take my studies seriously by year three!

The take home message from these two commentators: I did it, I worked for low wages, so all you sole parents can, and ought, to do it too.

But with respect, gentlemen, you did NOT do it.

Here’s the thing about being a sole parent. In addition to working damned hard at work, as people do, you have to go home and cook and clean and care for children. Your work day doesn’t end when you wave goodbye to the boss. That’s precisely the time when the toughest part of the day begins. No matter how long your work day was, nor how tired you are because you are both studying and working, you can’t just go home and make yourself two minute noodles and crash in front of the TV. You must turn around and pick up children from school or day care, and get them home, on public transport if you can’t afford to run a car, and help them with homework, and make a meal for them, and then get them through the bath and read a bedtime book with them, because that’s what parents try to do, all before you can even begin to think about having a moment to put your feet up. And by that time of day, children are tired and scratchy, making it all even more difficult. It’s not for nothing that most parents of small children refer to the hours between about 4.30pm and 7pm as the hell hour.

I’m willing to take DPF’s and Duncan Garner’s word for it when they say they worked very hard. What they didn’t have to do was take responsibility for anyone else. If they wanted to, they could take a day off work or a day off study. They could crash in bed the moment they got home, or sleep in if necessary. Parents have no such luxury. I’d also lay good odds that DPF didn’t have to cook all his own meals when he was a school kid. I’m sure he contributed to his family home, as most secondary school kids do. But I bet there was food in the pantry, available because someone else in the household had the time to get to the supermarket, if not meals cooked for him. And of course, that’s all fair enough: it’s what most parents try to do for their children who are working and studying. The point is not that DPF had access to such support. It is that it is unfair of him to extrapolate from his own experience as a young person working, and assume that because he was able to do it, sole parents ought to be able to do it too. The same applies to Duncan Garner’s experience. That’s brilliant that he was able to work so hard. But he wasn’t trying to care for children at the same time.

But if we are going to admit personal experience to the discussion of what sole parents should be required to do, let’s start with Paula Bennett’s experience, recounted in an interview in 2008.

The baby’s father “was well out of the picture and wasn’t going to come back”. Bennett says she decided alone to go ahead with the pregnancy. Asked why New Zealand has the world’s second-highest rate of sole parenthood, she says: “Because we back people to have choice … You’re not going to have me bagging the solo mums.”

At 19, still on the domestic purposes benefit, she bought her own house in Taupo for $56,000 with a Housing Corporation loan.

The mortgage drove her back to work. She did a part-time day job booking tourists on lake excursions while Ana was in childcare, then worked the 11pm-7am shift waitressing at a truck stop while someone else looked after Ana at home.

“Then I pretty much fell apart because I was exhausted. I went back on the DPB,” she says.

Over the next few years she worked as a cleaner, went back to the tourist job and was receptionist at a hair salon. In between, she was on and off the benefit.

Working in paid employment and caring for small children is exhausting.

And my own experience. I have never been a sole parent. But I did try to work full time in my dream job when my children were small. It placed tremendous strain on my beloved partner and me, and ultimately, I crashed and burned. Badly. To the extent that it was several years before I could even contemplate going back to work that was somewhat similar to the dream job I had left. And even then, I experienced recurrent panic attacks. It has taken me years to recover.

Working in paid employment and caring for small children is very difficult indeed. Yes, it can be done, and some people manage it, especially if they have good support networks, and if they are sufficiently well paid to be able to afford cleaners and pre-prepared food, and can get household appliances fixed as needed, and run a good quality car. But just because some people can manage it, doesn’t mean that all people can. And especially take note of this: young men without childcare responsibilities who work hard in low paid jobs are not a model for anything at all when it comes what sole parents should, and shouldn’t do.

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11 comments on “I did it, so why can’t you?

  1. Mr Bee says:

    “some people manage it, especially if they have good support networks, and if they are sufficiently well paid to be able to afford cleaners and pre-prepared food, and can get household appliances fixed as needed, and run a good quality car”

    And if they have only one child.

  2. Ariane says:

    I see red when I hear or read this kind of thing. I completely lost it when a bunch of people claimed that their partners going away for a week for work was equivalent to being a long term sole parent. I have very little patience for that kind of arrogance.

  3. M-H says:

    I commented on this on twitter, but will repeat it here. People who think and write like this are such dicks. They have no idea what they are talking about. Thanks for the excellent post, pointing out their fallacies.

  4. Jode says:

    And let us not forget that these arrogant “I did it, so you can” MPs, are still, to all intents and purposes, beneficiaries – the difference is that their income is now at level salary and wage earners can only dream about. Their attitude’s nothing new though – I recall Jenny Shipley, when Minster of Social Welfare, set out to prove that it was possible to feed a family of 4 on $100 a week – after a couple of weeks, one of her family became ill and required a visit to the doctor, so Mrs Shipley felt the need to call off her experiment. Beneficiaries’ children, it seems, are not entitled to medical attention as well as food.

  5. I still cannot be convinced that P Bennet can rationalise her merciless treatment of beneficiaries because she did it.She also did it in simpler times,when everything was cheaper.She is a total hypocrite,and in no other country would she be tolerated as a public servant…..nor would her entire government…they are lying SOB’s……….

  6. Che Tibby says:

    also, what possible freaking relevance is a job you have working while at school? you could be paid a gazillion dollars per hour.

    your mum would still be doing your ironing.

  7. Mindy says:

    I always try to remember when my partner travels, which he does frequently, that the fact his income still goes into our account whether he is at home going to work or working away from home puts me in a vastly better position to most sole parents.

    Politicians really need a wake up call when they start crapping on about this sort of thing. I would like to see them work out how to pay for childcare, rent, transport and food for 2 or more people on the amount of money you make in low paid jobs, not even taking into account tiredness.

  8. Marie says:

    Good commentary, D.
    I was very glad to have the DPB in the years when I was on it. But I had a lot going for me, in terms of additional financial support from family members when I was desperate; but especially moral support from friends and family. I needed that a lot when Ministers of the Crown referred to solo mothers as bludgers etc. I was doing the most important work I’ll ever do. I’m happy to pay taxes to support people raising children alone, and I was glad to get paid work when I could. Let’s hear more from the people concerned rather than privileged men.

  9. Rachael says:

    thanks for your commentary (and sanity). I too question of the relevance of cleaning jobs after school. I ran my own dance school in my parents converted garage, forms 5 through 7. I made great money, I worked hard, I got great grades in school, and was awarded seven prizes at my high school graduation.

    I am also the solo mother of three amazing teenaged children. I completed a degree while my children were small and I was alone with them and we were all falling apart. I am a straight A student. I have a psychiatric illness. I cannot work full time. I love the paid work that I do manage and I am excellent at it. I bake, I sew, I school my middle child at home, I grow vegetables and things, I fill my freezer for winter, and I try, oh I do, to stay in the here and now, and that in itself is a full time job. I find it difficult, no impossible, to take paula bennett seriously (I can’t even capitalise her name). There is no compassion, and no humanity in the government of this country. And the coming three years are terrifying to me.

  10. daleaway says:

    I grew up before the DPB existed.
    Two of my friends had their children adopted out after their husbands deserted them. There was simply no way these women could find a job and child care that would have allowed them to keep their own children.

    And I’m also quite old enough to remember the National cabinet minister who, when the plight of solo mothers and the availability of safer abortions was argued for in the mid 1970s, smirked: “You play, you pay.”

    Ms Bennett, don’t send our children back to the future. I’ve been there, and it was not civilised. As the Americans say, it stunk on ice.

  11. Amanda says:

    I completely agree. Another point is that when a parent gets sick there is no taking it easy and giving your body a chance to rest. It is still up to you keep things going. I was constantly rundown and ill when my daughter was younger and I wasn’t doing it solo. It also really annoys me that people lack the empathy to imagine the extra strains that poverty places on people. Things like an unreliable vehicle, not having suitable clothing for a job interview, or no washing machine make everything that much harder. As far as I’m concerned solo parents deserve our support and admiration- certainly not our scorn.

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