By George ParkerPrime Minister John Key has described his 2015 Budget as “compassionate conservatism” with the announcement of a core benefit increase, the first of its kind, apart from inflation adjustments, since 1972. Questions about the adequacy of this benefit increase, and the net gains to beneficiaries aside, this compassionate conservatism has not been extended to sole parents.In a suite of changes introduced to the Sole Parent Support benefit as a result of this year’s Budget, sole parents will now have to reapply for their benefit every year and a tightening of the work tests for sole parents means that they, and the partners of other beneficiaries, will be required to be work ready when their youngest child turns three, instead of the current five. As the Council of Trade Unions have pointed out, for beneficiaries with young children these increased work requirements will effectively cancel out the core benefit increase as parents will have to cover the extra costs of Early Childhood Education in order to make themselves available for work requirements.There is also a large amount of research evidence that calls into question the oft repeated mantra that sole parent families do better when sole parents are in paid work. Duncan and Chase-Lansdale remind us that if the indicators of success following welfare reforms are growing rates of employment among single mothers and a simultaneous decline in the numbers of single mother receiving welfare support, then welfare reforms can easily be proclaimed a success. However, if child well-being is used as the indicator, and further, child-wellbeing at different ages and stages of development, then the picture can be very different. Indeed, for sole parent families with children younger than five, there is a dearth of evidence that wellbeing is improved by forcing their mother into paid work, and indeed plenty of evidence that children’s well-being is compromised.Brauman reports on research that suggests that single parents and their families are not always better off in the labour force. Edin and Lein found that material well-being of single mothers does not increase when they are in the workforce, even when their income is higher, and at the same time, the conditions of poverty within which many of these women and their children live, either directly or indirectly, blocks their transition to self support, forming a vicious cycle for sole parent families. Brauman argues that a driver of the increased hardship faced by single parent families grappling with work requirements is the ways in which such requirements introduce instability. Instability is generated through the limitations of low wage jobs such as non-family friendly hours, inconsistent hours, and lack of flexibility to balance paid work and caring responsibilities, such as when children are unwell. Instability is then associated with increased hardship for single parent families, through for example making it difficult to hold on to paid work, in turn leading to instability.Heymann and Earle observe that the overwhelming majority of the public debate regarding welfare reform has assumed that parents leaving welfare for work would face conditions similar to those faced by parents already in the workforce. It has been argued that because middle-income mothers can work without apparent harm to their children the poor should be able to do the same. However, in reality parents forced to leave welfare for work face significantly different barriers to caring for their children’s health and well-being than those faced by other parents. These barriers are related to the lack of flexibility in low-paid work; the higher health and developmental needs of children living in poverty; the greater difficulty experienced by these parent’s in meeting these needs, for example transport issues; and the lack of high quality formal childcare for people on low incomes.The packaging of this latest raft of welfare reforms as “compassionate” is thus likely to be difficult to reconcile with the compounded hardship experienced by the predominantly women and their children trying to get by on Sole Parent Support.
References1 Duncan, G. J., & Chase-Lansdale, P. L. (2001). Welfare reform and children’s well-being. The new world of welfare, 391-420.2 Bauman, Kurt J. “Welfare, work and material hardship in single parent and other households.” Journal of Poverty 6, no. 1 (2002): 21-40.3 Ibid.4 Heymann, S. Jody, and Alison Earle. “The impact of welfare reform on parents’ ability to care for their children’s health.” American Journal of Public Health 89, no. 4 (1999): 502-505.