7 Jun 2008, Comments Off on The Glass Floor

The Glass Floor

Author: Helen

People have been writing about the glass ceiling for years, but some women need to worry more about a glass floor.

While people on 150,000 a year worry about losing their middle-class welfare, T sits at the kitchen table and cries because she feels her life is worth nothing. Her daughter’s aunts and grandparents are all (recently) dead and she has no support system. She needed that support system because under the Workfare rules brought in by the Howard government, she has to work a certain number of hours a week and her profession is lighting technician, so her hours are always unfriendly ones. She couldn’t get child care in her working hours even if she could afford it. The glass floor of social support has smashed under her.

If she works these hours, she doesn’t get to see her beautiful daughter, who of course is at school all day. There would be no-one to look after her from school time to midnight. Her earnings are a perfect example of the problem of EMTRs.

In better times, she scrimped and juggled to buy a house in a rough part of town, which she rebuilt – not redecorated, rebuilt – with her own hands. You should just see the job she did tiling the bathroom. This house she will almost certainly lose. She’ll fall through the glass floor to rejoin the overheated rental market.

Centrelink has breached her for missing two weeks work. In stage work, where the nature of the work is on again, off again. The work she does raising her daughter is, of course, worthless to them.

This is the second time they’ve done it. Last year they breached her for taking some weeks off to look after her postoperative and as it turned out, dying mother. Her brother had died not long before that. She sits at the table and cries and hates the world because she has never been given the chance to care for and mourn her family.

People complain about how much they have to spend on private education and proper health care. She doesn’t even think about these things. She’s fallen through those floors.

In all the decades I’ve known her, she has gone away for a holiday once, to visit her country of origin. She’s fallen through that floor.

Owning a car? She hasn’t driven a car for twenty years. In her highly physical, itinerant job, she has to bike or take public transport everywhere. She’s crashed through that floor.

Parties? entertainment, music? You need money for that. She’s fallen through that floor to a place where the house is quiet and dark and you cook on the gas barbeque because the stove no longer works, and you heat bricks on the same barbeque, carry them into the house on a baking tray and put them under the table to warm your legs a little.

She shows me a letter from Joe Ludwig, the Human Services minister, in reply to a letter someone has written. It’s saying he’s handballing the matter to Julia Gillard because she’s the minister for workplace relations. Shame on him.

The last government valorised mothers at home and gave them non means-tested handouts, except for single mothers, who they punished with the “mutual obligation” stick, while ignoring the need for social supports and childcare to enable them to work. Picking up that system and running with it, is that good enough – Joe? Julia?

Oh, there are still some glass floors she can crash through. The mortgage payment will be due soon. She is thinking that soon she will be in a place where the authorities will not just be coming for her, but taking her daughter away. The stresses of her life are making this strong, lively woman paranoid and ill. She has begun to behave defiantly, withholding the compliant cooperation the bureaucracy wants. Soon fingers will start to point and judge. The last few layers of glass are starting to crack.

Comments (0)

  • Caroline says:

    That’s a terrible plight to be in, I can relate. Middle class welfare is seen as completely acceptable and indeed a right ,by many people, particularly those who will complain about not having enough to buy an investment property. Whereas actual poverty in this country is seen as some sort of crime. Apparently the head honcho of Centrelink under Howard, was a particularly pernicious bastard and his bastadry has filtered down.

    One gets the distinct impression that Centrelink couldn’t give a flying fig whether one lived or died. Indeed dead, would be preferable as it would of course cut costs. This leaves only religious institutions as being the ones, supposedly with any sense of common human decency. A secularly based welfare systems has no rationale for being in any way ‘human’– ipso facto they’re not.

  • Having already suffered at the hands of Centrelink, I empathise with you. I know it is not much comfort, but there ARE people out here who can relate to your trials.

    In fact, there are a LOT of us out here. We have a dedicated website to highlight the negligent and oft criminal acts of Centrelink towards its customers, and I would be pleased to see you there . Have a look ; maybe put your story up with the rest of them. Eventually, someone will HAVE to listen to us, and Centrelink WILL be held accountable for its “indiscretions”.
    You can remain completely anonymous on our site : no one will question your desire to be so. Give it some thought.

    watchdoggie1951. http://www.centreflunk.com

  • kate says:


    I tried to think of some other words. Something intelligent and so on, but I have none. There’s only a few generous relatives between me and much the same fate.

  • Helen says:

    Garrie, it’s not about me. It’s about a friend of mine. But I’ll check it out. Thanks.

  • Helen says:

    16-point cerise and red fonts with large yellow smilies and multiple Godwins violations are not quite the way to go if you’re serious about getting the policy wonks to listen to you. But thanks for the thought!

  • Alison says:

    Kate – I’m in the same situation as you. Like 90% of Australia, I think I’m middle class. I rent in what is essentially a prestige suburb because it meant we could get to work without a car, and now I’m a graduate teacher. There, but for the grace of God…

    I must say the centreflunk site doesn’t work for me. It may have lots of material and evidence, but Swastika references? Nazi photoshopping? This sort of stuff weakens their argument.

  • Helen says:

    I’ve got a message on my voicemail from the manager of the local Centrelink who has got my angry letter (cc all ministers). She says she’ll ring back on Monday.

    My problem is: If I explain to her that T is unco-operative because she is suffering from severe depression, bereavement and anxiety, and is acutely in need of help, am I inadvertently creating a situation where they try to take her daughter from her?

    At the moment my instinct is to dance around that topic somehow. Thoughts?

  • Caroline says:

    It sounds like T needs time out from the bureaucratic demands of the ever mindless Centrestink. (or she may end up being unable to look after her daughter). They can and will put you in a completely untenable/unwinnable situation, given half the chance. Being honest seems only to completely snarl things up. It is completely ludicrous.

    T losing her daughter should be the scenario everybody agrees is best to work towards avoiding. I’d dance around the topic somewhat. Depression is considered to be akin to malingering by Centrelink and they beat you just the same. So who knows Helen, but if you’ve got the ear of the local manager you could try appealing to her humanity (?) she may be only too keen to relieve the disproportionate weight of guilt her role necessarily entails, (whether real or not. What’s remarkable about such things is often seemingly small to them, but life changing decisions that sometimes send people over the edge are made by relatively lowly administators.

  • Veronica says:

    Hi Helen – I’m wondering has T lodged a medical certificate and/or been through a job assessment capacity interview with Centrelink?

    I ask because I’m a single parent and have been recently assessed as having 0-7 hrs per week work capacity (my incapacity includes depression, recent family bereavement and anxiety with associated physical stress (ulcer).

    There has been no mention at all of me losing my child and I must admit it never occurred to me – I thought that only happened in cases of drug/alcohol/child abuse. In all the interviews I have attended nobody has ever questioned my capacity to look after my child.

    Having said that I wouldn’t trust Centrelink admin/staff and I wouldn’t be unloading (the whole story) on them – insist on T getting an appointment to see a C/Link social worker and be sure to be armed with a Dr Cert – lodge that Cert and ask about a Job Capacity Assessment.

    Centrelink allow one Dr Cert (1 month) to be lodged before referring you to an Job Capacity Assessment which happens when you try to lodge the 2nd cert. It’s a convoluted and ridiculous process but will buy T some time and maybe, just maybe T will get the help she needs thru counselling or other services that are offered by the social worker.

    Oh, and by the way a Job Capacity Assessment Officer is bound by privacy rules and can’t divulge info back to Centrelink unless you agree – I’m thinking this applies to the Centrelink social workers as well.

    Hope this is a bit of a help – for me personally dealing with C/link has been an effin nightmare – Veronica

  • tigtog says:

    No helpful advice to offer, sorry. Just wanted to note the powerful description of your friend’s plight. More people need to read about how others are having the glass floor shatter under them.

  • dysthymiac says:

    1. beautifully expressed dear Watcher.

    2. she should not mention the D-word, but .. Clink does provide psych therapy for people who need it

    3. I hate it that millionaires kids get the First HomeBuyers Grant, while this penny-pinching is happening.

    4. Local Member ?

  • Hattie says:

    I’m naive, which is another way of saying I’m an American. I’d always thought that Australia had a better social welfare system than the U.S., but your friend’s plight would indicate otherwise. And it sounds as if single mothers get bullied more, as well.
    I had a long talk with a friend yesterday, who had worked full time for my now deceased mother in law and who was now marginally employed, at best. This woman is a severe asthmatic who can hardly breathe and who weighs perhaps 90 pounds. In spite of this, she supports herself and her ne’er do well boyfriend too. But now she is losing her job working for a nursing service because one client complained that she could not haul five gallon jugs of water up the steps to his house. The other complainant was a morbidly obese woman whom she was supposed to help bathe and dress. She could not lift her. Of course it’s impossible for her to do this work.
    This woman is a college graduate who was prosperous for many years but lost her job in advertising. Now eldercare is only work she can get, and she can’t do it because she’s too frail. I asked her if she had applied for disability, but she said she had always supported herself and besides she didn’t think, according to her sister, a lawyer, that she could get it. I think she’s wrong, because I know lots of people less handicapped than she who are drawing disability. Oh, and since this is the wonderful US of A, she has no medical insurance. She’s 55 and so has years to wait before she can get Medicare.
    And she is not alone. Many many women around here are in her fix.

  • Ariel says:

    Hmmm … oh, that sounds just awful. And typical.

    Do you know any lawyers? They might be able to help you on what Centrelink can and can’t do in terms of taking her daughter away. Maybe speak to Legal Aid before Centrelink if at all possible? The D word could buy her some time, or, as you say, make them classify her as an unfit parent. I don’t know though … I know a child in foster care because his parents are drug addicts (my mother-in-law and her partner have had care of him for four years now, and he still spends a day with the parents once a week) and it’s amazing how much the authorities lean in the direction of clearly unfit parents just because of the DNA thing these days. Which could bode well for your friend, who is clearly a very fit parent in need of help.

  • su says:

    Just seconding Veronica re the Job Capacity Assessment. Mine was due to care responsibilities and I’ve since moved off parenting payment, but, at my local centre at least, the psychologist who did the assessments was very helpful. Getting a reduction on the 15 hrs sounds essential for T and the capacity assessment is the way to do it.

    If anyone didn’t catch Anne Manne on Big Ideas on RN talking about the ‘shadow economy’ of care and the way welfare to work has affected women then I really recommend downloading the audio before it disappears.

  • Guido says:

    Lest me being a ‘Centrelink defender’, however as a partner of a Social Worker who works at Centrelink I would say that there are many occasions where Centrelink staff has been placed in difficult positions because of draconic Government directives and legislation.

    Centrelink will get the blame when in some cases staff is under pressure to implement rigidly, without any flexibility punishing legislation.

    Shame Joe Ludwig indeed.

    (ps. if you want to change the blogroll “rank and vile” blog is no more)

  • Oz Ozzie says:

    so in a time of 3.7% unemployment, she can’t get work doing something else? She’s asking the government to fund her “right” to work in a particular industry?

    On the other hand, getting trapped in the byzantine centrelink system is a nightmare from which all escape routes are blocked. A maze of twisty mirrors all alike… On the political side I hope that once the tax system is “fixed up” then the government will rework centerlink to actually achieve what we want to achieve in a rational way…. right.

    I know about the D word. I live with it. Second the notion that medical certificates etc are the path forward. My view is that the risk of trying to ignore it is greater than the risk of not ignoring it.

  • matilda says:

    “I’m wondering has T lodged a medical certificate and/or been through a job assessment capacity interview with Centrelink?”

    This is absolutely crucial. Clearly your friend is not in a medically fit state. Plenty of people have medical dispensations in order to receive Centrelink benefits and frankly, it’s not that difficult, in my recent experience. I also know mothers with medical conditions who’ve been given long-term reprieves from the Welfare 2Work regime.

    Speaking personally, I needed to go back onto Newstart (my kid has long since grown up) having spent one & half years working in a call centre. Because of the long hours, bootcamp environment & shifts starting at all hours of the day, I could demonstrate to my doctor that it was wearing me down, creating insomnia and negative psychological states. I was given a med cert, thereby qualifying me for Newstart without having to wait the usual 8 weeks after leaving a job voluntarily. I then went for the job capacity assessment, all up I have about a 4-5 month reprieve, before I have to start looking for other work. I still do relief shifts in my chosen field, it’s not like you have to be an invalid or anything.

    Basically you just need a sympathetic doctor and i don’t mean a shifty doctor. Clearly your friend hasn’t been getting good advice about how to proceed.

    Centrelink also has Outreach workers who visit various community agencies each week to assist clients with their particular Centrelink-related requirements. Those Centrelink workers are known to be particularly helpful. If you want to email me the part of melbourne where yr friend lives, i could find out the nearest location of an Outreach worker. But primarily, she needs a ‘Centrelink medical certificate’ saying she’s unfit for work ASAP.

    It sounds to me like her current condition would warrant disability support payments, i know that sole parents can qualify for that, at least temporarily.
    But she still has bills to pay, etc. So perhaps once she’s bought some free time, she’ll have the space needed to look for work with more friendly hours.

    “under the Workfare rules brought in by the Howard government, she has to work a certain number of hours a week”. This is news to me, in the sense that if you’re working casually, then that’s it, they can’t penalise you for not working when the work is not there for you.

    “Centrelink has breached her for missing two weeks work”
    Assuming she’s on the sole parent benefit, while i’m not up to speed on all its punitive criteria, I simply don’t understand how she can be penalised for refusing to take work which would leave her daughter ‘home alone’, thereby placing her in danger.

    So whether she’s missed work because a) there was none to be had; or b) the hours were unacceptable due to above; or c) she wasn’t well enuf – they just don’t seem to be adequate grounds for breaching, i would have thought. Seems like she’s been dealing with dragons, let’s hope she gets as much of a reprieve as she needs, plus reimbursement for both lots of breaching, with your undoubted skills in letter writing Helen, i’m sure she can harvest some of the $$$ they’ve forfeited!

  • blue milk says:

    Some excellent perspective, great post. Thanks.

  • Helen says:

    I’ve spoken with Centrelink manager (local), sounded kind and helpful. Emphasis on sounded. Let’s see what transpires. Thank you all for your helpful and constructive suggestions!

  • […] It’s not very often that you get such a neat summary of one of the most inspiring libertarian arguments in one short piece, but Jason Soon has done a great job on mutual obligation over at Catallaxy. I agree with him – mutual obligation is an utterly pointless exercise in time-wasting that turns Centrelink bureaucrats into martinets, as this post ably outlines. ’Mutual obligation’ (’work for the dole’ and such like) is intended to avoid the problem of moral hazard: people in receipt of government benefits are made to do something for them. This is usually something pointless and demeaning and, as Jason points out, when combined with other libertarian arguments for economic reform (like the abolition of the minimum wage, for example) serves to make us all look like Victorian-era bastards: I think on purely tactical grounds that tacking mutual obligation onto a liberal reformist agenda hinders the promotion of more pro-market policies. The most important part of the free market agenda isn’t imbuing people with a Victorian work ethic, it is selling the idea that people should be comfortable with free labour and product markets including prices and wages not being fixed. […]

  • matilda says:

    “The most important part of the free market agenda isn’t imbuing people with a Victorian work ethic, it is selling the idea that people should be comfortable with free labour and product markets including prices and wages not being fixed.”

    Please explain what you mean by free labour, because that’s exactly what work for the dole is, it may usually be pointless but it’s still workin for nothin. Surely the Victorian work ethic is part and parcel of the free market agenda: wearing us down till we’re too burnt out or consumed by fear to complain about our lot in life, specifically workplace conditions.

  • Helen says:

    Also the issue of T’s unpaid labour – a different kind of free labour!

  • alister says:

    Matilda/Helen (while definitely not agreeing with the sentiment), SL’s saying, “it is selling the idea that people should be comfortable with free labour and product markets including prices and wages not being fixed” – meaning, both the labour and product markets need to be free from regulation. Apparently this will magically fix everything. But SL’s not arguing for unpaid labour – just for very poorly paid labour.

  • matilda says:

    Thankyou Alister, you have cleared it up: free labour= unregulated labour. Economicspeak frequently does need a translator, but often we’re afraid to ask!

  • alister says:

    No problems. I think SL had a clumsily constructed sentence. If she’d said, “it is selling the idea that people should be comfortable with free labour markets and free product markets including prices and wages not being fixed”… while my preference – for accuracy – would be to replace the word “free” with the word “unregulated”. I read it the same way as you the first time round too.

  • alister says:

    My mistake – on closer inspection, the clumsy wording is from the original post from Jason Soon, not by Skepticlawyer.

  • matilda says:

    Maybe these free market types are also in favour of unregulated syntax! Free grammar for everyone.

  • Darlene says:

    Thank you for this post. It illuminates very well the plight of the working and/or non-working poor.

    I’d like to agree with Guido about the workers at Centrelink. They are bound by the rules of the Government of the day (and they are just people doing their job in an often frustrating and confronting environment).

    It’s always best to be calm when you’re communicating with them, I think. You always get more flies with honey and all that. But I appreciate that’s really hard.

    You know, you got two days to grieve your loved ones when you’re in a job. The whole system is insensitive. Such a sad post. Must be hard to watch this all happening, Helen.

  • Darlene says:

    That should have said, “you get two days”.

  • […] Reading lefty blogs all the time, you can get the impression that we’ve made some good progress with equal parenting – but then sections of the Law and media have other ideas. Why do people use the word “babysitting” when referring to a father looking after his own children? Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony makes a grim point about which parent is held responsible for the deaths of children. She also writes a powerful post about a sole parent who is on the verge of losing all, because she simply cannot get care for her daughter during her work hours. […]

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