A few ladders and lots of snakes

In my feminist group back in the 1970s, we used to have a throw-away line: You’re only a husband away from welfare.

Over the next ten years or so, some of us found out how true that was. We became sole parents, or as we were called then, 'solo mothers'.

When it happened to me, I was one of the rare lucky ones. I had a steady job I really liked, with relatively good pay (for a woman). Even so, I struggled to cope with the feeling that on a day-to-day basis, as a parent I was now completely on my own. Everything depended on me. 

So when I hear now about the terrible struggles so many sole parents are having just to keep food on the table and a decent roof over their family’s heads, my heart goes out to them.

They’re much more likely than two-parent families to be really hard up. In the 2013 Census, six out of ten one-parent families had total income of $40,000 a year or less, compared with 10.2 percent of two-parent families. Half of the one-parent families had less than $33,000 – often a lot less.

I can’t understand why successive governments have been so intent on persecuting this relatively small group of people, 85% of them women, who’ve already got one of the hardest jobs going: parenting alone. The vast majority didn’t choose to be in this situation, any more than I did.

Persecution is a harsh word, I know, but to me that’s the right name for what’s happening now. Sole parents have to play a dreadful kind of snakes and ladders game, only with very few ladders and lots of snakes. Imagine landing on these squares:


  • Husband takes off with his new girlfriend. Go on Work and Income sole-parent benefit. Lose the In-Work tax credit (part of Working for Families, for the children).
  • Youngest child turns three. Work and Income says you have to find paid work.
  • Find work at local café for 15 hours a week. Work and Income claws back most of your earnings. Still don’t get the full Working for Families (WFF).
  • Café busier. Go up to 20 hours a week. Go off benefit, keep getting the WFF top-up from Inland Revenue and meet criteria to get the In-Work tax credit portion of WFF, worth $72.50 a week if you have up to three children.
  • Owner’s daughter wants some work. Lose two hours work as well as $72.50 a week of the In-Work tax credit. Then you have a battle to go back on the benefit.

None of this makes any sense at all, does it? We have to do better.

CPAG has started a campaign to Fix Working for Families so that it treats all low-income families fairer. Find out about its goals and how you can help here.

Anne Else has been a writer, editor and social commentator for over forty years. She blogs at and