Cause of confusion ... Centrelink payments vary according to the amount single mums earn. Photo: Erin Jonasson
Believe it or not, ''Changing A Nappy'' is not as simple as changing a nappy. According to the federal government's Staying Healthy in Child Care protocols, correctly changing a nappy involves 13 steps, from the correct disposal of gloves to the cleaning and disinfection of the change table.
''Recently, I went for a job at a childcare centre and they asked me for details about the procedure,'' says Karen, a 36-year-old single mother of three. Despite having worked in childcare and having successfully changed more nappies than the old woman who lived in the shoe, Karen froze. ''I'm out of practice, and my interview skills are bad, so I couldn't remember each step, and I was sure I left out three or four of them, and I just thought 'Oh god'. I fluffed it. In the end, I just hoped I'd fall through the floor.'' (Karen, who doesn't want to be identified, didn't get the position.)
So goes the job search for single mothers, a task that became exponentially more urgent on January 1, when the federal government's controversial Fair Incentives to Work Act 2012 came into effect. It moves all single parents off parenting payments when their youngest child turns eight, when they will have to make do with the $35-a-day Newstart allowance. The move will save the government $728 million over four years but it also means about 100,000 of Australia's poorest families lose as much as $110 a week.
As the name implies, the legislation was intended to prod single parents back into the workforce. To that end, it's been a qualified success. ''There's definitely been a noticeable increase in applications from single mums lately,'' says Brent Williams, the human resources manager at Castle Hill RSL, where about 15 per cent of the 470 staff are single parents, and where a food and beverage service position pays $18 an hour. Williams tries to accommodate single parent staff with, say, day shifts, ''so they can do drop-offs and pick-ups but also with shifts that start after 6pm, when they can perhaps get someone else to help with babysitting.''
But in the job market as a whole, such flexibility is rare. As Williams concedes, ''lots of employers in our area still say 'This is hospitality: if you are not available 24/7, then don't apply.'''
Karen knows this better than most. She split with her partner nine years ago: ''He was having an affair with our neighbour and left us for her and her three kids.'' She lives with her children, aged 10, 11 and 13, at her parents' house in Peakhurst. She pays $250 a week in board, and has recently pulled her children out of all sporting and extra-curricular activities. They rarely go to the dentist - ''can't afford it''. Karen also leases a laptop, ''even though it will ultimately cost me double what it would to buy it.'' Their shopping is, she says, ''strictly op-shop, baby!'' Her former partner, meanwhile, contributes a grand total of $75 a week to the children's upkeep.
She is nearing the end of a full-time social science degree and is desperate to finish but can't study any more until she finds a job that makes it possible. ''As far as I can see, the only jobs that give the flexibility of school hours are prostitution, drug dealing, teaching or your own business.''
As it is, she has no less than four separate jobs, all of which are unreliable and often require her to be ready at short notice.
''I work at a childcare centre, casually. Somebody has to be sick on the day and they'll ring me. That's $26 a hour. They are fine there, they are as understanding as they can be but they need their casual staff to be on hand - that's the nature of casual work - and if you say no couple of times, you get bumped down the list. At the end of day, they are a business.''
She also tutors in early childhood teaching at her university, but this is sessional, meaning the work is only available during the two 14-week terms. ''It pays $34 an hour, which is great but I'm lucky if I can arrange to get three or four hours a week.''
She also serves on the student campus council, and has recently been paid fees for her advocacy work, most notably in lobbying for more flexibility for students with children. And lastly, she mows lawns, for which she charges $20 an hour, cash only (hence her reluctance to be identified).
''That's my regular work,'' she says. ''I have about 10 clients, mostly old people I know. They ring me when they need me and I will try to slot them in around whatever else I have.''
In a good week, she might earn as much $100 from the mowing, but this tapers off as winter approaches. ''If Centrelink found out about it, they would be like, 'What the f---?!' But this week, all I earned from mowing was $40. Sometimes it's more like a community service that anything else.''
The uncertainty is killing her. There is no such thing as ''an average day'' or ''a normal routine''. She has little idea of where she will be at any given moment. ''If I don't have a uni class, I'll schedule in some mowing, and if I can't get that, I contact the day care centre, hoping for work. If I am meant to be studying and day care calls, I have to drop the study and go, because it's got to the stage where work is the priority.''
Drawing up a ''family budget'' has become something akin to alchemy. ''I don't even know what I am entitled to from Centrelink because they say it depends on how much I earn and I can't tell them because it varies so much.''
The day she received notification that her benefit was to be cut, she sat down and cried. ''It's only $100 less, but that's not the point. It's like, what else can you do to me?''
Karen is lucky in two regards: she lives with her parents, and she owns a car - ''an old station wagon.'' She is by nature a positive person, and often talks in laughy one-liners. (Her email address is a play on the phrase ''jack of it''.) But she also says she ''can't face things a lot of the time … I am so angry. I keep going backwards, just treading water.''
When I ask how it affects her head space, she replies: ''What head space? I tried to settle down today but I couldn't because my head was spinning. You wake up feeling sick, wondering how it's all going to work out.''
All of which explains why she couldn't recall the 13 nationally mandated steps for changing a nappy.
Karen is by no means a one-off. ''The government has done no planning with this,'' says Terese Edwards, the chief executive of the National Council for Single Mothers and their Children. Last November, the council set up a hotline to gauge reaction to the proposed changes. Concerns about the lack of regular work featured prominently. ''We know that a job in itself is not a way out of poverty,'' Edwards says. ''What these women need is suitable regular employment, jobs that are family friendly. What we are seeing is a real mismatch between the jobs that many low-skilled single mums can work and what is available.''
For women, like Karen, whose hours fluctuate, the single parent benefit had provided a safety net, ''something,'' Edwards says, ''to keep a roof over their head if the work dried up. But now, the government has taken that away without saying where all these regular family-friendly jobs will come from. It doesn't make much sense.''