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Divorced from wealth

Another sign of the well-organised attack on the meagre family law and child support reforms, of recent years, by the divorce industry…

This is a story of many separated women, their choices, their consequence (life outcomes)and their desire to be supported by governments (aka taxpayers) because of those choices.

Additionally, and importantly, it is a story about the innocent children and men (fathers) who suffer because of those women's choices.

To discuss this article go to Women who chose separation complain about poor outcomes.
The Sydney Morning Herald
19 April 2008

Divorced from wealth
By Erin O'Dwyer

Well educated and affluent, these women found poverty is closer than most people imagine, reports Erin O'Dwyer.

Julie Di Gregorio used to be a Volvo mum. She managed a business with her husband and lived with their two daughters in an inner-Sydney terrace house. These days, the 50-year-old lives in public housing in Wollongong and sometimes struggles on her $259 pension.

"Living in Alexandria there was a block of housing commission flats opposite," she sighs, "and I used to think, 'How could they let themselves get so low?' I had no understanding of how anyone could get to that point. Or how your life could unravel."

Carole Ouellette, a former nurse, tells a similar story. She once drove a yellow MG and lived in a five-bedroom home with her husband and three sons. These days, she drives a second-hand Mazda to fetch free bread from a community centre in Wollongong, which she delivers to her friends. Once a week she eats lunch there, too.

"I took my sons recently. They all have university degrees, and they were very uncomfortable," says the 58-year-old softly. "I said, 'You look around because you could be like this one day. You never know what is ahead.' "

It is rare, you might think, to find women like these - once married, now divorced; well-educated, once affluent and successful - queuing up at no-cost community centre lunches alongside some of society's most disadvantaged.

But Australia's traditional middle class is being swallowed up by the higher cost of living. Our so-called "working families" are the working poor. And it is single women who are doing it the toughest financially.

A community paper produced for the Federal Government's 2020 Summit (SMH article) says there will be about 450,000 older single-women households by 2026, compared with about 200,000 lone male households.

This follows a report to the Senate last month which identified single pensioners, in particular older women, as "at extreme risk of falling into poverty". Older women had little or no superannuation and their meagre singles pensions had to stretch further than couples' to cover basics such as rent, food, petrol, and utilities.

For the next generation of single women, it is about to get worse. Lawyers and social researchers believe changes to the child support scheme which come into force midyear will leave about 60 per cent of single mothers worse off than before. Fathers, in particular wealthy fathers, they say, will pocket the windfall.

"Our preliminary research indicates that a large proportion of our clients who are primary carers will be receiving significantly less child support under the new formula," says a policy lawyer, Edwina MacDonald, from the Women's Legal Service.

Wealthy fathers are already better off, with the first round of changes introduced last year capping payments for non-resident parents who earn between $130,000 and $140,000 each year.

Under the complex new scheme, fathers who care for their children at least two nights a fortnight will receive a 24 per cent discount on child support payments.

There is widespread concern that much less money will soon be flowing into single-parent homes - most of which are run by single women. The amount single mothers can earn before child support is cut is reduced from $39,000 to $17,000.

A boost for some women in family tax benefits is unlikely to counter the cuts.

A sociologist, Dr Elspeth McInnes, from the University of South Australia, believes the changes herald another generation of poor, single, older women. "It will be compounding the feminisation of poverty," she says.

"It was always the case that the person who had primary care of the children suffered the worse financially. The child support changes will mean there is less income in households where children spend most of their time."

For decades, research has shown divorced women are worse off than men. They are more often victims of domestic violence, more likely to work part-time than full-time, and more exposed to homelessness and depression after separation or divorce. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that one in four single mothers experiences high or very high psychological distress.

"We know that women experience much higher levels of poverty than men in general," says Karen Willis, from the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

"Often that's because women have been at home instead of working and superannuation doesn't kick in like it does for men. Also, if they leave a marriage they chose safety over material possessions. So that does leads them into poverty too."

But the housing affordability crisis, with rising food and petrol prices, is compounding the problem.

"The big middle class is being eroded," says Dr Eileen Baldry, from the University of NSW's School of Social Work. "There are more people who were middle class who are finding it harder. Charities are now feeding families who have work but can't make ends meet."

Dr Baldry also points to regime changes under the Howard government that are now starting to bite: welfare-to-work policies that penalised single mothers, and changes to child custody laws that introduced a presumption of shared care - even where there had been a history of violence.

She says it is not surprising that more middle-class women are relying on charities to supplement their weekly food bill.

"This is one of the hidden faces of poverty," she says. "It's been the case for some time that the most disadvantaged group in Australia are unpartnered mothers but it's the cumulative aspect of all this that we are now beginning to see.

"Women and their children have lost their homes and jobs, and been forced into a lifestyle which is often hard to get out of, especially if you are an older woman."

Out in the suburbs, more stories of women in poverty are emerging.

Phoenix van Dyke, from the Tenants Union of NSW, says many older women are struggling to pay the rent in Sydney's northern beaches.

"Some landlords would actually say to them, 'I don't think you can afford to live in this area any more … Maybe you should move to the western suburbs,' " she says. "It was humiliating for them."

Humbling is the word Tanya Whiteside, 50, uses to describe how she felt when she first joined the Centrelink queue. A businesswoman from a respected family, she worked in fashion, cosmetics and real estate.

"I grew up wanting for nothing," she says.

She and her husband lived in inner-city Sydney and their two daughters went to selective schools. When the marriage crumbled, Whiteside got an office job and moved into a one-bedroom apartment. But her health suffered, and she took a room in a share house. Later she moved in with her daughter in Wollongong.

Now, living alone in a tiny granny flat, she spends $140 on rent and $45 on food each week.

Her grocery receipts for the week make a tiny pile of paper scraps: $23.42 for staples such as tea, coffee, milk and yoghurt; $13.90 on fruit and vegetables; and an additional $9.25 on beans and lentils and canned fish from an Asian grocery. Already she is over budget. The remainder goes on counselling and bills.

"I thought I would carve a new life for myself when I left the marriage but my health didn't stand up to it," she says. "Going to Centrelink was humbling. It was a lesson in learning how to ask. But I've been so grateful for the support."

But Whiteside remains extremely positive. She says she is the happiest she has ever been.

"It's been a journey but I am learning how to be free," she says. "I have my life and it's simple and I'm dealing with only the aspects that matter."

Julie Di Gregorio and Carole Ouellette agree. Di Gregorio left an unhappy marriage with almost nothing but is now starting to return to her practice as an artist.

Ouellette delayed her marriage settlement for 16 years so her children could live in the family home but says the decision empowered her emotionally, if not financially.

"You really start to go back to basics," says Di Gregorio.

"You think, 'It's such a beautiful day today. I'm alive, I'm not sick. I can hang the washing out.' Oh my God, I'm getting off on hanging the washing out. That's what happens."

Ouellette says, "You focus on what you do have, not on what you don't have. And you don't stop to think about what choices you once had."
To discuss this article go to Women who chose separation complain about poor outcomes.
Edited

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