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.