Single Mothers Are Meant to Be Broke

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"Give me your life hacks, things that make your money stretch further" said my workmate, also a single parent but of four kids, on Facebook.

The responses were both interesting and bizarre. Who knew you could revive a banana with rice and a hair dryer? What really struck me from the responses though was just how tough things are for some single parents.

It's just not news. It is expected that single parents will struggle -- we're used to it, and we expect it.

Last year in New Zealand the child support legislation* changed, and people lost it. Totally, completely lost it. Suddenly, the paying parent was facing things being a bit tougher as payments rose, and despite the fact custodial parents have been struggling for years that was somehow unpalatable.

It was actually a pretty solid piece of legislation aimed at reducing child poverty. Kids in single parent families are overrepresented in statistics for underachievement, and poverty is a big part of that. Previous loopholes had allowed some scandalously low assessments of child support by claiming, for example, a new partner's children as dependents. Those loopholes, and others that allowed the self-employed to pay themselves low wages and therefore pay low child support, were closed.

Second wives in particular went ape shit as their husbands suddenly had to take responsibility for their kids.

One woman was so outraged she went to the media. Her husband, the actual father and payer, was noticeably absent from a litany of woe poured out to a gullible reporter who showed no sign of having actually asked any pertinent questions.

His payments, she thundered, would rise from a perfectly reasonable (in her view) 30-odd dollars per week, to more like $130. The outrage! They would have to tighten their belts -- she and these children that weren't actually his -- and budget harder.

Custodial parents looked on in bafflement thinking "well, what do you think we do ALL the time?"
Reporters lapped it up as more and more hard-done-by folk stepped forward with their terrible stories of increases up to amounts that actually might make a difference to their kids.

Why do we barely bat an eyelid at custodial parents doing it tough, but draw in a sharp breath at the thought of the other parent potentially having to budget a bit harder?

Warning: Potentially feminist opinion incoming. Look away now if you're squeamish.

I think we expect that women will find it tough. But a man "should" have some disposable income for himself, we feel. It's "a bit rough" that he might actually have to consider whether he can actually afford that beer because of child support.

A lot (not all) of custodial parents are women. For some reason, it's expected that a solo mother will be hard up. That's just the way things are. I know quite a few -- we all spend the vast majority of our incomes on the small people that live with us.

Most parents do. That's part of the deal, one of those fine print things that you don't quite understand you're signing up for when they hand you the small red-faced alien in the maternity ward.

One commenter on a story I read was upset that he might actually have to "think" about weekend treats like carnivals and buying ice creams. He didn't think that was fair. I thought about all the single mums I know and how we mentally do the maths every time an outing is mooted, and chuckled to myself.

In families where the parents are still tolerating each other... er... together... it's my understanding the kids get first dibs on the dosh. My friend's other half was scrounging a coffee at mine the other day and I asked him what percentage of their cash got spent on the kids.

"120 per cent" was muttered in a dark tone. "I'd like a bit of cash for myself sometimes."

Thousands of kids are being raised in single parent families.

Not all of them are doing it tough, but lots are.

There's an interesting double standard in New Zealand where people are outraged that there is a sector of society that sends their kids to school with no lunch. Charities have been formed to feed these kids while debate rages over whose responsibility it actually is to provide. The same internet windbags who thunder about "parental responsibility" over hungry kids will sympathize with the poor, hard-done-by child support payer.

There is a lot of lip curling at anybody in receipt of child support who displays a halfway decent lifestyle. It is apparently evidence not that the paying parent is paying their share of the children's expenses and therefore freeing up some of the other parent's income, but that the receiving parent is living like a Kardashian on someone else's money.

A single parent home with a decent lifestyle? What a strange society we live in when this is considered remarkable and we feel sorry for parents having to provide for their kids just because they don't live with them.

*Child support in New Zealand is administered by the Inland Revenue (tax) Department. The amount payable is based on a combination of both parents' income and the amount of care each parent provides. Parents can opt out and come to a private agreement provided neither is in receipt of state welfare.