A small child in a beanie is held by a woman with long dark hair
Photo: Getty Images; additional design by Archi Banal

SocietyMay 12, 2023

Discrimination ‘getting worse’ for single parents – new research

A small child in a beanie is held by a woman with long dark hair
Photo: Getty Images; additional design by Archi Banal

A research project involving 3,500 single parents has revealed myriad challenges, including racism and systemic discrimination.

This story was first published on Pacific Media Network.

Aggie Tupou became a parent in her late teens. “This was no one night stand,” says the Pacific Media Network host. “I was about to get married. I was about to live what I had assumed was the happy family. But it didn’t work out like that, and I know it doesn’t work out like that for a lot of people.

“Do you think that I grew up, and at 15, 16, 17 all of a sudden said: ‘You know what, I want to be a single mum’?”

Tupou was sharing her personal perspective on the stigma she’s encountered as a single mother, in response to research highlighting the difficulties faced by many in this situation.

Aggie Tupou with her late mother, Mele Maile Ula Tupou (Photo: Supplied)

The Mako Mama Mangopare Single Parents Project surveyed 3,500 single parents on their experiences, coming up with 82 recommendations to shift the high level of stigmatisation these parents deal with.

In New Zealand, one out of five families has a single parent and research co-author Tania Domett said they are often “doing it tough”.

Speaking to Tupou on PMN’s Pacific Mornings, Domett says she was stunned to learn of the discrimination towards single parents.

​“I grew up in a single-parent home … and when I started doing this work, I could not believe and it broke my heart about how that stigma and discrimination is still alive and well and in some respects, perhaps even getting worse.”

Pacific single parents

Pacific single parents made up 7% of the survey participants and Domett says they face additional challenges.

“The racism that our single parents are experiencing in the system adds another layer of systemic discrimination.”

For Pacific single mothers there were also higher rates of intimate partner violence (67%), most of it at the hands of the other parent of their children, along with poor mental and physical health.

More than a third of Pacific mothers surveyed said they found it difficult to access everything they needed to feel connected to their culture, and four out of 10 were struggling to pay for healthy food and clothes for their children.

A 2016 study, Relational Resilience in Māori, Pacific, and European Sole Parent Families, suggested security and suitability of housing could be improved through tailored social housing.

“For some cultures, as with Māori and Pacific sole parents, the availability of larger, four or more bedroom units would enable families to live in higher concentrations of extended family housing, if they choose to.”

Encouragingly, Domett says there were some positive figures from Pacific survey participants.

“The support that they’re getting from their families was something that was really sustaining them, more so than other demographics.”

Tupou says she is grateful to have had family support.

“I was very, very lucky to have an amazing mum who decided to come along, as disappointed as she was in my actions as a young Tongan-Samoan girl … but if anything, what she showed me was the grace that I know is not afforded to every single parent.”

She says single parents are already struggling with their own expectations, on top of going against social norms.

“If you come from a ‘broken home’, you are often then regarded as lesser than everyone else here in society. I’ve already gone through a hard situation, your judgment isn’t going to make the situation any better.”

Tupou says how society responds to single parents shows people’s true colours, but it should be a call to action.

“We all want to make our families proud, but the moment you make a mistake is the defining moment where you can actually see the strength of your family, if they are for you or against you.

“If you are already going through emotional distress because your deadbeat partner has decided to leave, this is the opportunity where the community can really step in … and if you want our society to thrive, the biggest thing that you can do is help those who are considered the least.”

Income and social inequities

More than half of the survey’s participants earned less than $50,000 per year, and 37% were caring for children with a disability.

Tupou says asking for help is hard enough without the judgment.

“The moment I knew I had to go into Work and Income and apply for a benefit, it was, to be honest, the most degrading thing.

“Because I’ve always been someone who can do everything on my own, but now that I actually really am on my own, I need support.”

Domett says when single parents try to access support from Inland Revenue, Work and Income (WINZ) or the Family Court, it can backfire.

“A lot of times when single parents reach out to service providers to get the support they are entitled to that is their right, they’re often flagged in the system and investigated.

“So our call here is to have training and support for frontline workers to understand that single parents are worthy of their respect and not their suspicions as a default position.”

Of the single mothers earning less than $50,000 per year, 32% felt they were treated unfairly by WINZ, 19% by landlords and 17% by employers.

Employment struggles

Domett says single parents are an asset to the workplace, and businesses should look at options such as flexible work hours to accommodate them.

“One of the mamas we work with said, ‘Look, when I’m at work, I churn out more work in 30 hours than I see my colleagues doing in 40-50 hours because I am focused, because I can multitask,  because this means something to me because I want to get myself out of the situation’.”

Ninety percent of survey respondents said they wanted to work, but childcare costs were often an issue.

“Starting funding at age three is ridiculous – no single parent unless they’re extremely wealthy can wait three years to return to work,” said one participant. “It’s an utterly ridiculous policy. Supporting single parents back into work by making early childcare funded from six months on would be ideal.”

Another survey participant said sick leave should be doubled for single parents.

“In a two-parent family, if they both work they have two sets of sick leave/dependent leave that they can use. They can share the load between them. A single person has to use their sick leave allowance for themselves and their multiple children.”

The report shows some single parents choose work they are overqualified for, because of perceived flexibility, and just 56% of low-income single mothers surveyed felt the work they were doing matched their qualifications.

Calls for change

The recommendations from the survey include setting up a portal where all the support entitlements for single parents are listed in one place, an investigation into rental discrimination for single parents, an insurance scheme, more access to childcare subsidies, and even modifying the payment card used for food grants.

“That green card that people have to pull out at the supermarket, and then the whole supermarket line sees it and shames you for it … just change the colour of the freaking card,” says Domett.

The advocacy group is calling for a campaign to celebrate single parents and show the value they bring to society.

“What we’re calling for is a multi-platform, multi-year public awareness campaign that really shows the absolute value that single parents contribute to New Zealand, and would contribute more if they were only given the chance.

“It’s time to lift up our single-parent whānau.”

Tupou says single parents can do incredible things with the right support systems.

“People who are a single parent, I’ve seen their children become some of the greatest people in this world, and if we understood someone’s worth then we wouldn’t be putting a stigma on single parents. We would want to come around them and we would want them to flourish and thrive.”

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