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Welfare cuts to lone parents will not help them find work

17 January 2013

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Peter Whiteford is a Professor in the Crawford School. He works on child poverty, family assistance policies, welfare reform, and other aspects of social policy, particularly ways of supporting the balance between work and family life. He has published extensively on various aspects of the Australian and New Zealand systems of income support. He teaches Social Policy, Society and Change (POGO8024) and Social Policy Analysis (POGO8025).

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Contrary to a recent opinion piece, the indications are that most children who are abused do not live in lone-parent or step families, writes PETER WHITEFORD.

John Hirst, writing in The Age on Wednesday, argued that the social welfare system provided ''the economic underpinning for the regular abuse of children''.

He also argued in support of the government's decision to move about 100,000 lone parents from the single parent payment to the lower Newstart payment when their youngest child turns eight.

As he points out: ''The larger purpose is to improve the wellbeing of these households by persuading the single parent to take work and not rely wholly on welfare.''

The government's objective of reducing family joblessness is admirable. While Australia's overall employment performance is one of the best in the developed world, it has one of the highest concentrations of household joblessness in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - that is, nearly half the people of working age who don't have paid work live in households where no one has paid work.

A big part of this is due to low levels of employment among lone parents. Joblessness among parents is the major cause of child poverty in Australia - nearly 70 per cent of children in income poverty in Australia live in families where their parent(s) are not in paid work, a share that is more than twice the OECD average.

In addition, the Australian system of family payments, although expensive, has been one of the most effective in the developed world in guaranteeing that if a parent is in full-time paid work they are not in poverty.

About two-thirds of jobless lone-parent families are in poverty, compared with 15 per cent of those in part-time work and not much more than 1 per cent of those in full-time work. So, potentially, if we are able to increase employment among lone parents, we can greatly reduce child poverty.

But arguing that welfare underpins child-abuse misrepresents the effects of the welfare system.

As Hirst points out, problems of child abuse seem to be highly concentrated among a relatively small number of families.

There are major difficulties in making comparisons among countries due to differences in reporting and categorisation, but a 2011 OECD report, Doing Better for Families, found that cases of child maltreatment reported to child-protection authorities ranged from 1.5 per cent of children in England to 3.3 per cent in Australia and 4.8 per cent in the US.

Joblessness among lone-parent families in England is even higher than in Australia, while lone-parent joblessness in the US is less than half the Australian level.

The same report shows that the worst types of child abuse - those that lead to the intentional death of children - is very low in Australia (sixth lowest among 33 countries) and Australia has seen the fourth largest drop in intentional child deaths since the 1970s, while New Zealand - which has a very similar welfare system for lone parents - has actually seen a small increase over the same time.

A 1996 study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that various forms of child abuse and neglect were more common in lone-parent families or where there were stepfathers or de facto fathers. But abuse occurred in only a small minority of these families. It is worth noting that most children who were abused or neglected did not live in lone-parent or step families.

The literature on these issues shows it is very difficult to disentangle the effects of family type or receipt of welfare from the effects of low income on family functioning.

A good illustration comes in a 2003 French longitudinal study that looked at the question of whether divorce is bad for educational outcomes for children. While this study found that children whose parents divorced did significantly worse at school than children whose parents had not divorced, these poorer outcomes appeared two years before the parents were divorced.

That is, divorce did not cause poor schooling outcomes but both had another underlying cause - likely to be family conflict.

This is also likely to be the case with lone parenthood, long-term welfare receipt and child abuse - they are all symptoms of the complex disadvantages suffered by a small minority of families. These problems are unlikely to be resolved by cutting benefits for lone parents when their children are of school age.

While the government's objective of reducing family joblessness can be strongly endorsed, it is still possible to question whether the most recent welfare changes are the best way of achieving this goal. One of the effects of the change is to reduce the incomes of lone parents already in paid work by up to $6000 a year.

Requiring parents to look for paid work as a condition of receiving benefits does not require that those benefits be cut at the same time. What is needed is intervention at younger ages to support employment through expanded childcare availability and affordability and more effective labour-market programs.

This piece was originally published in The Age:

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