The Women of Simpson

Just on a fortnight ago, Gorgeous Dunny emailed me with this thread-starter. Among other things, he said:

Assuming a worst-case scenario, I thought that this story might be useful. It is nothing like what we had discussed about the gutting of the CES, but I did do a useful digression at one point in the story to explain why we need to have a fairly strong bureaucracy, and that some of the work they do is extremely valuable.

We may be facing a slash and burn if Hockey gets his hands on the Treasury keys. So it could be a useful reminder of the type of thing we’d lose.

I think Gorgeous Dunny is right. We need to refocus, we need to start the campaign for the next election NOW, and we need to trumpet every broken promise, every bit of damage to the polity, every bit of stupidity that this Abbott-led government will undoubtedly commit.

Thank you, GD, for your clarion call to arms!

Simpson is a small township in the Heytesbury district of Western Victoria, roughly between the regional cities of Colac and Warrnambool. Simpson is relatively close to other larger townships of Cobden, Timboon and Camperdown. It was founded after World War 2 as a base for soldier settlement farmers.

With less concern for such matters at that time, native forest was cleared to allow farming. It was suited for dairy farming, as was the entire district. The climate is cool with a high rainfall. The soil, once part of a volcanic area, is fertile. The farming flourished in that endeavor.

As one of the country’s most productive dairy regions, butter, cheese, ice cream and powdered milk factories prospered. By the 1970s, Kraft Foods decided to establish a cheese factory at Simpson. Kraft was already a dominant influence in Warrnambool and Allansford. Thus, the Victorian Government greeted the investment with some enthusiasm.

The Minister for Decentralisation, Mr Digby Crozier, was very keen to encourage any country investment and employment prospects. When Kraft first proposed the factory, he offered to build Ministry of Housing dwellings at Simpson to accommodate the employees. Kraft accepted.

(Credit: Colac Herald)

The best-laid plans of Mice and Men oft go astray – Robert Burns

The problem was that Simpson was only about ten minutes’ drive from Cobden, and about the same in different directions from Timboon and Camperdown. These places were the most likely sources of employees needed (many having the right type of experience). By the 1970s, the private car dominated as a means of transport. It was not worthwhile for employees from these places to relocate to Simpson, even though they readily accepted the work.

The Ministry of Housing was then in the unusual position of having a quantity of rental houses available at Simpson but no prospective tenants. That was contrary to the rest of the state where prospective tenants far outnumbered the housing available. It was too good to let go.

The dilemma was resolved by using that accommodation for single mothers with children. There was an abundance of single mothers on the Ministry waiting list for accommodation. As deserted wives, the victims of domestic violence, the spouses of alcoholics and drug abusers – they were invariably without means. And as the primary carers of pre-school and school-age children, they had few options for obtaining income. So the unwanted country housing became a refuge for young single-parent families (mostly from the city) in desperate need of accommodation.

There would have been adjustments for some, but the overall impact must have been positive. For the first time they had a secure cottage and land. It was at an affordable rental, and they could get on with their lives free of many stresses associated with the basics of food, clothing and shelter.

Although Simpson had minimal resources as a tiny country town, it did have the basics of a primary school, shop and park. Cobden, with a hospital, high school, super markets and other resources was only about ten minutes drive away.

As far as can be ascertained, most such families settled in well. They would have forsaken frequent contact with other family members and friends, and with services we’d take for granted such as dental and optical and the larger range retailing and recreation. That could be balanced against the freedom from abusive and violent partners. It was a safe and healthy place to raise children.

But by 1988, changes were occurring. The social security system that supported these women and their families was changing. In the 1970s, there had been a mishmash of pensions such as Widows and Deserted Wives. They had been merged under the general title of Supporting Parents Benefit. One further change during the reforms of the late 80s, however, was that the Supporting Parents Benefit ceased when the youngest dependent child turned 16 years.

Those claiming such a benefit were then expected to register for unemployment benefit, and implicit in that, to seek employment. The little haven of tranquility was suddenly exposed to threat.

This change exposed the social problem. The very strength of their location suddenly seemed a weakness. As sole supporting parents they were given housing priority. The country location, far from being a disadvantage was actually helpful, despite their city origins. Abusive and dominant ex-spouses were unlikely to trouble them.

If they were to become jobseekers, however, that very isolation could become a disadvantage. The government, sensitive to the impact from these changes to benefits, had assigned counsellors to assist in the transition. Simpson, however, was a different matter, with such a high proportion of its tenants on Supporting Parents benefit.

How I came to be involved is part of a different era in public policy, and worthy of a digression. For the last three decades it has been fashionable to talk about “reducing public waste”. In particular there have been political demands to reduce public sector staff numbers. Usually, politicians explain it away as “only cutting out excessive administrative positions” but not reducing important public contact positions. That is the political position, but it is more wishful thinking than realistic.

In my entire career I have always been happier and more effective in public contact work than in administration. But even I know the immense value of a strong administrative base. We need it to determine that our taxes are well spent. That requires a lot more than just eliminating waste and duplication. A lot must be invested in research to ensure that the scarce resources we have are spent in the most effective way. And a lot is invested in planning and developing public policy to ensure it has the widest reach for the greatest need.

The year 1981 was proclaimed the International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP) by the United Nations. It called for a plan of action with an emphasis on equalization of opportunities, rehabilitation and prevention of disabilities.

In Australia (in an era just before the Reagan and Thatcher age took hold), all were called on to contribute in the private and public sectors. The country got right behind the idea. Great energy and investment was put into improving access for people with disabilities. Most was done on the most obvious shortcomings such as improving wheelchair access to buildings and toilets.

Our Department (Employment, Education and Training) considered access to its services, especially training and employment.
In particular, it looked at overcoming barriers to obtaining and retaining employment. It did not look at subsidies so much as to ask the question, what does such a person need to be competitive in the job market? When considered like that, the answer seemed to be to have employment skills that were in demand. From that it devised a Labour Market Program (LMP), which became known by its acronym as DAWS (Disabled Apprentice Wage Subsidy).

An employer hiring an apprentice under DAWS would receive a wage subsidy for the duration of the apprenticeship. In dollar terms it was about $130 per week. Over the duration of the apprenticeship, that meant near 100% of the wage at first year level, and a gradually receding percentage over the succeeding years as the trainee became more skilled and experienced, and was better paid.

The DAWS program was much more than just a wage subsidy, however. It had provision for Tutorial Assistance to help trainees with trade school. If a person had a hearing impairment, an intellectual disability, dyslexia or literacy problems, it could be applied to enable success. Other LMPs could be used in conjunction with DAWS. The Modifications to the Workplace Program enabled the purchase of particular equipment to be used in work. The aim was to allow the person then to focus entirely on doing the job.

From my perspective as an Employment Counsellor, DAWS was the best ever Labour Market Program. Persons with trade qualifications and skills had something to offer an employer. In most cases that meant that they became independent of social security support through employment, and sometimes self-employment, in the community. It achieved the aim of shifting the focus away from the impairment to how he or she could work. From a public point of view, such people instead of receiving benefits became taxpayers.

I have digressed at some length to illustrate the value of public policy research, evaluation and development. The argument that we can save public money by just reducing the number of jobs in the public service, especially at the Head Office administration level, is simply nonsense.

At the time of my story (the late 1980s), a great deal of research went into developing programs of assistance to employees made redundant be the reductions in tariffs. When used effectively, they could achieve good results in redeployment.

This digression was a way of explaining the Department and my role in intervening with The Women of Simpson. When Supporting Parent Benefit ceased to become available to those whose youngest child had turned sixteen, the primary support option then was unemployment benefit. To be eligible, however, persons had to be available for work and actively seeking it, or at least obtaining skills to be able to find work.

It was not just the shock in the changed conditions of support. It could potentially lead to distress as people looked at their plight. The government, sensitive to such a situation, would have already briefed and funded the two key departments Employment, Education and Training (DEET), and Social Security (DSS) to help alleviate the potential for a backlash.

The statistical data gathered by DSS included recipients of Supporting Parents Benefits, and in particular, those likely to lose that support in the next three or four years. The data would have identified anomalies such as the high proportion of beneficiaries in the Simpson area. From that it would have been a simple step to providing funding for and planning a special project. Then it would have been a matter of liaising with the resources in the area such as the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES), DSS and TAFE.

By the time I was briefed about the project it was almost ready to go. It would always have been a priority to use whatever professional resources were available. Primarily that was an Adult Education Project Officer from TAFE, a Social Worker from DSS, and me as Employment Counsellor representing DEET and the CES. Eunice from TAFE was the coordinator of the joint project. She briefed me on the aim and the details of the plan. DSS had supplied a printout of the names of sole parents in the area.

What she proposed was a mail-out to those in the target group, inviting them to attend a meeting in Simpson about the transition. The first public meeting was essentially to be a briefing one to explain the situation and how each of us may help them.
A date was set for the meeting, to be held at the Simpson primary school. The mail-out extended to single parents in adjacent locations such as Cobden, but the largest cluster was at Simpson. We did consider the transport access of all when they responded. Since three cars (CES, DSS and TAFE) were going, we arranged to ferry any of those without transport.

The meeting was to explain the transition. Our primary concern was to assure recipients that nobody was being abandoned, and that this change could represent an opportunity to improve their lives and their future prospects. All three of us spoke to identify the role of each and how we could assist.

Eunice, as the professional adult educator, spoke about the advantages of improving literacy and basic education through to computers for broadening the horizons. The DSS Social Worker assured them of income support for the transition period and beyond, as well as offering individual help for those with personal and hardship issues. I spoke about the opportunities for changing lives and expectations through education, training and employment (which in some cases would have included preparation for work and work experience).

All three of us had graduated using the opportunities provided for free tertiary education during the Whitlam and the Fraser years. In a sense we had that in common with our group. We had all entered as mature-age students and valued the opportunities presented. The meeting was essentially for information, but we must have conveyed some of our enthusiasm to the group. There was a high follow-up response to the meeting.

We planned a second meeting for just over a week later. This one was almost a whole day (with lunch provided). There were two segments to this one. Eunice ran tests to determine their literacy and education levels and current needs. Working around that part, I, together with a CES officer, interviewed all of them to register as unemployed. They needed to be registered to qualify for LMP assistance even though not claiming benefits. I worked with those not currently being tested, and later we reversed.

It was an intense day for the group and for those of us interviewing and testing.

We arranged a third meeting to inform them of the testing results, and of the CES programs assistance available. The results and the subsequent actions are worth noting (albeit I am relying on my memory). From the mail-out we had about 16 attend the first information day. Then we had about 12 attend the second full day for the testing and registering.

It was pretty near the same number attended the third meeting for the results and the recommendations on educational, training and employment directions. The results and recommended actions were very heartening.

Four of those assessed were either functionally illiterate or close to it. Another four had little more than primary education. A further few had a reasonable enough secondary education to consider higher education or TAFE courses.

The most urgent needs were for those with no or limited literacy. That was also the first geographic problem. The nearest accredited courses in literacy and bridging education were at Camperdown. None of them had their own transport. We overcame that by liaising with the Victorian Education Department.

I worked a deal where they were able to travel to and from Camperdown on the school bus system. It was unprecedented and we had to get written authority, but it was done. From memory, seven participated, including some from Cobden. Three or four of these were in the literacy group. The others were in the educational preparatory classes in basic computers and English. I believe there were a few group sessions that all joined.

I followed up with the Camperdown coordinator some weeks after they’d commenced. She was very pleased with their progress. All had made some progress in literacy and preparation studies.

She was very impressed with a Cobden lady, Jill, who at 50 was the oldest member of the group. Jill was illiterate but made great progress. Not only did she progress in literacy. In other activities Jill showed a real talent for art and produced some excellent work. She also had a great sense of humor and kept other younger ones amused and interested.

Jill had had a long battle over her life. Her husband was in prison, and apparently didn’t add much when he was home. Poverty and the struggle to raise children had taken their toll. Somehow she had remained positive. She was looking forward to life as her children grew up. Each had an individual story, but all were about survival.

That was encouraging from where we had started with the assessments and interviews. One did Year 10 at Cobden High, which her daughter was attending. Some others, a little more advanced in education, also had good outcomes. Two enrolled in TAFE vocational courses, which normally lead to work prospects. I was able to assist another two into voluntary work experience through the hospital at Cobden and the school. In each case, it eventually led to paid work when I offered the Jobstart wage subsidy to their employers.

So starting originally with a response of sixteen to our meeting, eight moved into literacy and basic education, two into vocational training and two others into voluntary and then paid work. That was a very positive response ratio.

The success might have been helped by our backgrounds as mature-age entrants into higher education. All three of us were enthusiastic about prospects ahead for them. We seemed to have an empathy with the group. The social networking has also helped.

In my professional role as an Employment Counsellor, I was expected (in addition to my case work) to complete at least two projects on special tasks per year. This easily qualified as an important one. Some months later I reviewed and evaluated the entire project and its results, which were pretty well as described.

I prepared a study paper on it for discussion at our bi-monthly statewide meeting of Employment Counsellors. It was very well received. I was very flattered that two other Counsellors asked me to send them all the written details, with the aim of adapting a similar project to their own regions.

What we achieved then was a precursor to a program eventually promoted by DSS and the CES called JET (Jobs, Education and Training). The aim of that program was to assist single parents into one of those pathways through Labour Market Programs and Educational Assistance.

It was about opportunity, and was a little broader–based than our project. Childcare assistance could also be included. The key to its success is, I believe, to convince them that it is an opportunity, not a penalty. It can put them in control of their own future.

If we can give them hope and show a way, they will achieve.

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