'ParentsNext wants me to go to playgroup. Without my kids'
The program, which has been under intense fire over the past few weeks, requires Julie to attend story time or play group. Even though her school-aged children won't be in attendance.
Returning to the paid workforce after a long absence is a very daunting process, especially once your skills and qualifications have become outdated. With his in mind I was genuinely looking forward to starting the ParentsNext Program.
The Department of Human Services website calls ParentsNext a "support service" and claims that it functions to "help you with your study and work goals".
"Fantastic!" I thought, because that is exactly the kind of help I am looking for.
My hopes were short-lived
Paperwork in order I rolled up to my first appointment ready to take advantage of everything this seemingly perfect program had to offer.
"I've been looking at courses that --" my caseworker, who looked like she'd just strolled in from a three day rave party, cut me off; apparently I don't qualify for help with study because my youngest child turns six before the next semester.
I'll admit I was disappointed, but not to be discouraged I asked about employment. Specifically, could I have some help finding appropriate work for women in my position.
Again the answer was no.
"We encourage you to look for work," drawled my caseworker sleepily, "but we don't actually help people find employment."
While that's all very warm and fuzzy, encouragement to look for work is the last thing I need. After a decade raising children full-time I am practically foaming at the mouth to get back into paid employment.
Just when I was starting to wonder whether this program is an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars, my caseworker kindly confirmed my suspicions.
Playgroup or the library?
As it happens, although they couldn't do anything for me, there were still a few things I needed to do for them.
First, despite the fact that I went in with clear goals in mind, they insisted I take another four weeks to think about said goals. When I dutifully reported back with the same information, my new caseworker, also shockingly unprofessional, typed it into my file and proceeded to offer me a list of totally unrelated "mutual obligation" options.
The government, she explained is paying me an income supplement, and requires me therefore to prove I am doing something to earn it. Something, I suppose, outside of the tax I have paid all of my working life, taking a 'break' only when it was necessary to raise my contribution to the next generation.
I am not eligible for the parenting courses, not that I need them after all these years, because they run for longer than I will be enrolled in Parents Next, so that leaves me with story time at the library, or supported playgroup.
Now I know I complained that these options were irrelevant, but reading stories to children at the library? That is right up my sing-song-Playschool-book-loving alley! Where do I sign?
"No, no," laughed my caseworker, "you'd be listening with your children."
Only my children are all at school, so I'd be the creepy childless adult sitting in the corner watching other people's children listen to stories. Or I could do the same at playgroup.
Either way, unless I could somehow procure myself a spare child, I'd be on my own.
It's not working for most people" "I know it's ridiculous" she said, "but it flashes up on my screen that you have to do, and I don't want you to lose your payment. It's not working for most people."
A stunning admission, but she's right. Of the mother's I have spoken to (I'm yet to hear from a father in the program) not one can offer a success story.
Take Megan, a 37 year old mother working part-time in administration. In order to meet her mutual obligations under the Parents Next program she was told that she would have to take a day off work and keep her daughter home from preschool in order to attend story time at her local library.
She had to choose between risking her job, or risking her Cenrelink payment; either way she would be losing income.
The government claims this program is a success, but I wonder which figures they are using to back that claim. Are they counting how many parents are reading at the library instead of at home? Or do they count parents who are just as likely to have returned to work or study once their children started school anyway?
With an election looming it seems to me that they are throwing our tax dollars at a show pony.
A program that looks and sounds like support for struggling families, but really only serves to add to that struggle with more appointments, more days off work or school, and more threats to the already meagre safety net holding single parent families, carers and other marginalised groups above water.