State of the working single mother

by | Feb 13, 2024 | 0 comments

HILDA (the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia) survey is considered one of Australia’s most valuable social research tools. HILDA first examined the lives of 14,000 Australians in 2001 and releases data yearly, comparing it to the 2001 data and painting a picture about how Australian life is changing.

The 2024 data has just been released, and shows that the proportion of women aged 18 to 64 in paid employment has climbed from 64.3 per cent in 2001 to 76 per cent. This figure might be even higher if quality childcare was free and more widely available, particularly in rural and regional areas where there are often no places available.

While the HILDA data includes all women regardless of partner or parenting status, CSMC’s national survey of single mothers, released at the end of last year, shows a slightly higher percentage of single mothers in paid employment, at 77.7 per cent.

Analysis of Census data also reveals single mothers work on average two per cent more hours than other women (34 hours, five minutes compared to 33 hours, 25 minutes), equating to an additional 34 hours over a year. Let’s hope the negative stereotype of the unemployed single mother is well and truly put to bed.

Another surprise revealed by the HILDA data is that the gender pay gap is slowly shrinking. In 2016, women earned just 78 per cent of what men earned, whereas now they earn approximately 86 per cent of what men earn.

There is, however, still work to do.

Significantly, CSMC’s national survey of single mothers revealed that despite their employment status, 72 per cent of respondents expressed difficulty in meeting their general cost of living expenses. This is not surprising as 61 per cent are sustaining a family on less than $60,000 annually, however we are seeing this financial strain on families at all income levels, as the economic crisis drags on.

This makes it clear that government mantras like: ‘The best form of welfare is a job’ are wrong. Single mothers pushed into casual, insecure and low paid work can find that employment is a poverty trap in which they are not better off financials then when supported by the social security net to provide unpaid care for their children, but have much less time to look after their children and home.

Discussions about single mother employment must be grounded in care responsibilities and take into account factors such as how many days per fortnight the mother has a child or children living with her. Our national survey also revealed that the 1168 respondents had their children in their care an average of twelve days per fortnight, regardless of the kids’ ages. Caring for children daily, including when they are suddenly unwell or need to attend appointments and activities, in combination with paid employment and running a household is a lot for one parent to juggle.

Single mothers frequently tell our Support Line workers that their mental and physical loads leave no room for sick days. This is supported by the latest HILDA data which reveals that women in Australia are more likely to work when they are feeling mentally or physically unwell compared to men. Almost one in five women reported working when they were physically or mentally unwell. This is neither sustainable nor fair.

So while we welcome the positive news coming out of HILDA for women as a whole, we recognise that for many women, particularly for single mothers, the road to equality is still a long one.

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