Is the deficit discourse finally shifting? Sole mothers, social stigma, and policy possibilities

by | Feb 14, 2024 | 0 comments

By Emily Wolfinger, PhD

After decades of advocacy by sole mother groups, on 20 September 2023, the Australian Labor Government finally reversed the Liberal Howard Government’s welfare reforms that required sole mothers to be looking for employment by the time their youngest child turned just six years. This reversal also followed the release of a report by Professor Anne Summers, which showed a clear link between sole motherhood, domestic abuse, and poverty. According to this report, which is based on national census data, more than half of Australian sole mothers have been in an abusive relationship.

In light of poverty statistics, Summers concluded that mothers in abusive relationships have two choices – poverty or enduring violence. I would add a third “choice” – struggle to maintain the kind of work required to sustain a family, while simultaneously (and often single handedly) raising children.

Having struggled as a sole mother for many years, I responded to the news of the Labor Government’s welfare reform with mixed emotions. While I was not going to directly benefit from this reform, it nonetheless signalled some kind of recognition of the work of caregiving, which had been devalued and rendered invisible by neoliberal welfare policies for far too long.

In Australia, these policies were initiated by the Howard Government’s Welfare to Work reforms in the 1990s. In short, Howard’s welfare reforms formed part of a new era in welfare policy that emerged across the Anglophone world from the 1980s and 1990s. During this period, the post-War view of welfare as an unconditional, though limited, social right was replaced by a view of welfare as creating dependence and various social ills. As such, new rules were introduced, requiring everyone to be actively seeking work.

Sole mothers were most impacted by these reforms. Where previously caregiving was seen as – albeit, problematically – the appropriate role of women, and sole mothers were more or less supported by the state in exercising this role, by the early twenty-first century, that view had drastically changed. Under Welfare to Work, sole mothers were deemed workers first and caregivers second.

Accompanying these shifts was discourse that problematised sole mothers as “lazy”, “entitled”, “irresponsible”, and “bad” parents. This discourse worked to devalue their contribution as mothers with implications for all people engaged in motherwork, even if its aim was to legitimise policy that effectively punished sole mothers.

The construction of sole mothers as non-working has its basis in neoliberalism – a political-economic doctrine that organises social life according to market logics. While this discourse has been dominant in our time, influencing political rhetoric and public perceptions surrounding sole mothers, sole mothers have been historically stigmatised and marginalised.

My research has found that in Australia (as in other Anglophone nations), sole mothers have been stigmatised within three primary discourses over time: unmarried mothers, teen mothers, and welfare mothers. Prior to the 1970s, the discourse on sole mothers was shaped by moral-Christian theology and thereby defined according to marital status. During this discursive period, unmarried mothers were labelled “harlots” and their children cast as “bastards”.

Later, as norms governing sexuality and the family changed, and ex-nuptial teenage pregnancy became more visible, discursive emphasis shifted away from sexual immorality to wrong timing. “Kids having kids” became a household catchphrase as moral panic about teenage pregnancy ensued.

This problematisation of sole mothers peaked in the late twentieth century with the construction of the “welfare mother” whereby, increasingly, the economic “irresponsibility” of sole mothers – regardless of age or marital status – was emphasised in institutional discourse.

In the chapter, entitled ‘From “Harlots” to “Irresponsible” Economic Citizens: Shifting Discourses on Sole Mothers’ (Demeter Press, ‘Gone Feral: Unruly Women and the Undoing of Normative Femininity’), I also argue that the growth and diversification of sole mother families over the last half-a-century, alongside the tireless advocacy of sole mothers, has contributed to a seeming shift away from homogenising or problematising discourses on sole mothers towards narratives that reflect the diversity and complexities of their lives.

This shift – in the Australian context at least – is demonstrated by the aforementioned policy reform. On a larger scale, it is evidenced by the recent growth of social science literature that examines the lived experiences of sole mothers.

According to Jessica Yorks, social science research on sole parent families emerged alongside the growth of this family form from the 1970s, however it often problematised sole motherhood, examining its causes and consequences, particularly for children. She argues that this body of research has recently moved away from a focus on harms to children toward an examination of the multi-faceted lives of sole parents, largely as a result of the broad trend in social science research of centring the voices of research participants.

During a recent conversation with Terese Edwards of Single Mother Families Australia, I reflected on the implications of the recent welfare reform and commented with hope that the stigma associated with sole motherhood may be lifting as the realities of their lives, including domestic abuse, are finally being recognised at the highest levels of government.

However, poverty and struggle remain endemic to sole mothers’ lives despite evidence that social stigma may be lessening, while the extension of a measly welfare payment will not lift women out of poverty, particularly during a time of high living costs. In Australia, just over one-third of sole parent households – the majority of whom are women – live in poverty, making sole parent households the poorest household type. As sole parent families increase and diversify, and their voices are heard through research and advocacy, hopeful possibilities emerge, though they require careful consideration.

As a maternal scholar, writing about sole mothers, caregiving, and women’s financial security, I have concluded that it is not enough to advocate for policies that enable women’s workplace participation. The work of caregiving is vitally important as it upholds the health and wellbeing of individuals, families, societies, and the planet (a home-cooked meal is better for the environment than takeaway and plastic containers!). We also require policies that recognise, reward, and enable the work of caregiving regardless of the marital status, age, gender, or other identification of caregivers. As a starting point, policy possibilities include universal income payments for primary caregivers, superannuation for primary caregivers who are not in paid work, and unconditional entitlement to sole parents.

It’s crucial to recognise that the recent shift in policy, while a significant step forward, is just the beginning of a longer journey towards true equality and recognition for sole mothers. We need a policy agenda that works toward a comprehensive support system that not only enables but also celebrates the work of all caregivers as fundamental to the wellbeing of our society and the planet. Building a policy agenda that reflects real choices and tangible support for mothers and caregivers requires a collective effort. It’s time for us to come together – activists, policymakers, and society at large – to create futures with real choices for mothers, caregivers, and their families.

This article first appeared in the newsletter of IAMAS (the US arm of Maternal Scholars Australia) and has been reproduced with permission. 

Dr Emily Wolfinger is an Associate Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences at Western Sydney University. Emily has contributed a chapter, ‘From “Harlots” to “Irresponsible” Economic Citizens: Shifting Discourses on Sole Mothers’, to ‘Gone Feral: Unruly Women and the Undoing of Normative Femininity’ (Demeter Press, to be published late 2024).

If you are interested in contributing a chapter to Emily’s other forthcoming work, tentatively entitled ‘Valuing the Critical Work of Caregiving: Policies and Practices that Support Mothers and Motherwork’, please email her at for more information.

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