Being a mother with four children to raise, on an Australian Single-Parent Pension, 1980’s-90’s was one hell struggle. How could I pay for the roof over our heads, put food on our table and ensure an education for us all?
While I was still married, I was fortunate to be living in a home that was purchased from the West Australian State Housing Commission with a deposit of about $1,500 with very low interest, and repayments a little above what we’d paid to rent the place. How did I find the money for the deposit on a house that cost $23,000? I saved the government Child Endowment I got once a month until I had enough. That took a couple of years.
After my marriage ended in the 1980’s, I was lucky to have a psychiatrist who’d adopted the role of being like a father to me and a grandfather to my children. He gave me a loan of $3,000 to help me keep my home when my husband was pressing for it to be sold. Without my psychiatrist’s help, my children and I would have been homeless and I doubt I’d ever have been able to pay rent and continue to study without working. I paid back the loan via the $40 a week maintenance the father of two of my children was supposed to pay fortnightly, through the Family Court and directly deposited in my psychiatrist’s bank account. I was able to keep my home.
It took years to pay him back, and because those child maintenance payments went through the courts, I did not even look at the payments that were made. I couldn’t afford to look. Why? I was educating myself at university, determined to get out of that poverty, and I knew that those payments would not always be made. Far better not to look, but one day I did. Only one day. The payments always dropped off around exam time and if I’d looked more, the stress I’d have endured would have been too much to bear.
I couldn’t afford the books I needed for university. An old Baptist woman, who ‘adopted’ me, gave me free access to her account at a Perth bookshop—allowed me to buy anything I needed. She loved being able to do this and I certainly loved her.
University was free for mature-age students like me in those first few years. No fees—such a gift. I’d often tell myself that people in the church, and the government and university were like a caring family, giving me what my parents never did. But it did not mean they put food on my table. That was another issue.
Living on the bottom rung meant lots of soups and stews, cheap garden veggies and fruit—shared with anyone who came to our home. As soon as my children reached their teens they worked on milk runs, at the local service station and delivering newspapers. They bought things for themselves that I couldn’t afford, like clothes and odds and ends they wanted. It helped to know that their education was also free. I didn’t have to pay school fees and education expenses were subsidised. All graduated and ultimately went on to university.
There were many times that I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get extra help, like when electricity and phone bills came in. I had an open wood fire in the loungeroom and a wood-fuelled hot water system, and the times I had to justify wood serving a similar purpose as electricity and gas was heartbreaking. I’m talking about, facing cleaned-up patronising employees at the counter of Social Security who couldn’t get their heads around wood being as important as gas and electricity. Wood was cheap. I would never have been able to pay for gas and electricity to warm our home and heat water for showers and baths.
I recall dressing down to avoid questions designed to invalidate my need for extra financial help, like wearing old clothes when lined up with the homeless. At first I didn’t know such help was available. Money was there to help mothers and families like mine, but this information was not readily made available to me via Social Security. It was only when I became more educated that I realised.
As a consequence of knowing, I did this. I paid all wood, electricity and gas bills in one hit, which left me with no money for food. This meant that I, being penniless, was entitled to a government handout, enough for two weeks food. At first Social Security gave cash but then things tightened up. They’d only give food vouchers to be spent at designated supermarkets, like Coles or Woolworths where the food was actually more expensive than my small local supermarket—terribly demeaning as shoppers lined up behind me at checkouts, seeing me hand over the vouchers. This new initiative was supposedly due to pensioners spending government handouts on drugs and alcohol.
I could have worked to get a little extra cash but chose not to. Why? The work I did would have cut into my small pension and it wasn’t worth it. And, I’d have had to report every bit of work that I did. To do so would have made me feel like a prisoner, government eyes on me all the time. I’d worked since I was a teenager for twenty years in hotels, restaurants, factories, kitchens, old people’s home and ironing and cleaning for the well to do and I was going nowhere. All of this kept me in a position to be tramped on, powerless. I wanted more for my life and for the lives of my children. To work, study and be a mother at the same time would have been too much. I chose full-time study. Hence, total dependence on the pension.
Things tightened up again. I was required to check into Social Security at regular intervals to allow them to make sure I was not cheating in some way. Because I was studying full time, to do that would have been very difficult. My primary transport was a pushbike, wouldn’t have been able to get from the university to Social Security at allocated times. I explained my case, requested an exemption and it was granted. On top of this my home was checked to see whether or not I had an employed partner. I lived alone with my children. There was barely room for us all in that house, and when I explained this, those checks stopped.
There were times when I’d search rubbish on verges to find old bikes, birdcages and sewing machines. I’d collect them, bring them home, fix them and sell them—For Sale signs on my verge. Money from that meant I could get a cheap Chinese meal for my children and me—a luxury. For a few years I did not have a car, I could not afford to go to the cinema and found it hard to pay for bus fares. Sometimes I took a wheelbarrow to do my food shopping, easier than having plastic bags filled with groceries on the handlebars of my bike. We had cheap everything, and gifts of furniture from Real Estate display homes provided us with chairs. In all of this, my children and I continued to study.
I recall one night my university Australian Literature tutorial group went to an expensive Chinese restaurant in a Perth suburb, Nedlands. Students in that group were employed, cashed-up professionals. I had seven dollars, enough to pay for beef in black bean sauce. They decided to order what they wanted and to share the food and costs. I could not do that, told everyone that I didn’t like what they ordered, avoiding embarrassment when it came time to chip in to pay for the meal.
A student, who was a neurosurgeon, collected the money and $20 was left over. He spoke out loud across the table, asking our tutor, Sister Veronica Brady, if she knew a charity that could do with the money. Yes. He gave it to her and she turned to me, “Could you do with this, Suzanne?” Yes. The next time we shared a meal, before entering the restaurant, she quietly told me that she’d like to pay for my meal. “Eat anything you want, don’t hang back.” I found it difficult not to weep in the face of her caring, her sensitivity on both occasions—shook as I held emotions in check, knocking over a glass of wine.
I was involved in the church. They helped in many ways—huge help that I could not have done without. I had no family support and to be frank, their generosity made many things possible, easier for my children and me to continue to study. I smile when I recall the faces of well to do women at a church lunch when I asked if I could take leftovers home to my children—curries, fancy stews, cheese and biscuits, sweets my children never got to see. These women knew about faraway poverty, but not the kind that sat right beneath their noses.
I really do wonder what has changed these days for single parents. For me, it all came down to education, caring people, painful humility, and increasing awareness of available support. I did all I could to ensure that I did not remain dependent on the government—my best in very difficult circumstances.
I am now highly educated, a teacher and author, own my home and have many skills—no need any more to place my life in the hands of the government, no need to plead for help as I did many times back then. I am coming close to retirement as a classroom teacher and this may well change—something I prefer not to think about.