The Federal Government is expanding its pilot of ParentsNext, a compliance-based program to assist young parents – mostly mothers – to become employment-ready. While in principle a program of this type is most welcome, the quiet way in which the Department of Employment is rolling this out and its lack of a strong evidence base is concerning.
In the context of Anti-Poverty Week this week, it is critical to ask whether these types of policies are actually creating greater vulnerability to poverty, rather than supporting people out of it.
In this blog, Juanita McLaren (@defrostedlady) and Policy Whisperer Susan Maury (@SusanMaury), both of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, summarise some of the points contained in their submission on this program. You can hear Juanita, Cassandra Goldie, Peter Dwyer and others discussing the burden of welfare conditionality for free on Friday 20 October as part of Anti-Poverty Week events.
ParentsNext is described by the Australian government as an ‘engagement and referral program’ for parents in receipt of Government income support payments. It provides early intervention assistance to parents with children as young as six months with the aim of helping parents identify and achieve their education and employment goals.
The program has been operating in ten locations across Australia since April 2016 and in the 2017-18 Budget the Australian Government announced it will invest $263 million to expand ParentsNext nationally from 1 July 2018, on the basis of claims of the positive impacts of the program. According to the Discussion Paper, approximately 96% of ParentsNext participants are expected to be women, including around 10,000 Indigenous women. The program is positioned as a complement to a range of other Government initiatives designed to increase female participation in the workforce.
Assisting women into meaningful, productive employment with a career pathway is much needed. There are many positive outcomes from participating in meaningful, properly remunerated employment for women, including dignity, financial security, and expanding social networks. Access to meaningful employment and educational opportunities is important to disrupting the inter-generational cycle of disadvantage for women and girls and to ensuring their capacity to enjoy the fullness of life. However, our analysis suggests that the proposed national expansion of ParentsNext fails to incorporate a strong evidence base that would more effectively support people into paid work.
While we have more fully enumerated our concerns about this program in our submission to the Department of Employment, this blog focuses on three areas of concern: The first is that ParentsNext incorporates punitive measures, secondly that the program devalues the important role of parenting, and thirdly, the policy fails to address the most significant barriers that women face to productive employment.
Balancing parenting and employment
Research shows that it is not disinclination but rather a lack of real employment opportunities which is the primary barrier to workforce participation in Australia. For women, and mothers in particular, there are additional, structural barriers in the Australian workplace, which this program fails to address. Correcting these structural barriers would be more effective than individualising the problem by targeting mothers with young children.
Further, the ParentsNext program demonstrates incorrect and harmful assumptions of long-term welfare dependency for mothers of young children. The reality is that most women are on welfare for a limited amount of time – approximately 4 years for most women. It would be more beneficial to work within these realities and base decisions on evidence rather than rhetoric. With an intention to have mothers re-entering employment at the earliest opportunity there seems to be little consideration for what will happen to their children.
Whilst the ParentsNext program offers a range of support services, it appears the young parents are being forced to fit their personal goals within the confines of the service provider’s limited resources and networks, that is, the service providers are often only able to link job seekers with employers and industries they themselves have a relationship with. The majority of workers in precarious employment are women, filling nearly 70 per cent of precarious positions. This is most often due to women’s need for flexible employment that can work around caring roles. The ParentsNext program may inadvertently worsen this bleak outlook for women’s employment by encouraging women with young children to accept employment opportunities that lack security, adequate remuneration, or a long-term career pathway that will lead to financial security. Encouraging mothers to accept precarious positions reinforces gendered inequalities in employment and leads to long-term cycles of poverty for families. Instead, mothers should be encouraged to seek employment when they feel it is best for them and their children with a strong emphasis on assisting women to skill up for positions that are more secure.
Further, there is ample evidence that when mothers of young children re-enter the work force, there is a corresponding increase in expense. This includes the not insignificant costs of transportation and wardrobe requirements amongst others. There is also a significant cost for child care. For mothers of young children this often means keeping another woman in precarious employment to look after her child/ren while she also is engaged in insecure work. Meanwhile, mothers are being encouraged, perhaps against their will, to limit their hours of raising their own children. Even from a purely financial perspective, the costs involved in employment may not outweigh the income.
The ParentsNext Discussion Paper states that “approximately 96 per cent of…participants [are] expected to be women” (p. 8). Women spend 16 hours per week on housework prior to becoming a parent, which jumps to 30 hours per week when their youngest child starts school, while caring duties jump from 2 hours per week to 51 hours when a baby is born. It is unhelpful to view mothers of young children as unemployed workers when they are in fact working longer hours than men in full-time positions, but largely without remuneration.[i]
We find it illogical that the demographic which has the least amount of time on their hands is being targeted by the ParentsNext policy, while there are many other groups who also experience barriers to employment. Why not de-couple ParentsNext from mothers and instead provide this service to all marginalized groups who are struggling to create an employment pathway? For example, assisting young people, who are experiencing high levels of underemployment, to complete qualifications and find productive employment is true early intervention for parents of young children. It is also surprising that fathers are not more of a focus for this program.
Punitive measures are not motivating
The language of the ParentsNext Service Offer uses highly conflicting language such as ‘encouraging Indigenous parents to prepare for employment,’ and yet there is a strong emphasis on compulsory participants, ‘targeted’ and ‘required to participate under social security law’, and includes having ‘payments suspended until they re-engage, and [clients] may incur demerits.’
The Parenting Payment system already imposes a high level of conditionality on receipt of Parenting Payments, which has increased poverty levels particularly for single mothers and their children. It has already been shown to be the case for providers in the Welfare to Work scheme that policy is interpreted inconsistently and clients are regularly subject to microaggressions; it is not realistic to think that ParentsNext providers will extend better support when the power imbalance is maintained through the actual or threatened withdrawal of welfare payments. This is another instance of removing agency rather than increasing it; the evidence base indicates this is not an effective strategy when attempting to encourage behaviour change.
Where’s the evidence?
While there is reference to an evaluation of the ParentsNext pilot, expansion plans are rolling out prior to its publication, while consultation sessions held around the country were focussed on ironing out the details of how the program would be administered, rather than questioning its efficacy.
The lack of published evaluation results notwithstanding, the program fails to incorporate a strong evidence base, giving the impression there are other, unacknowledged, drivers to establishing ParentsNext. The Coalition government’s financial investment into the ParentsNext program appears to be less about job creation for parents of young children, and more for the contracted providers, who perversely receive bonuses for pre-determined achievements rather than these being paid to the clients themselves.
The Welfare to Work system, which already requires single mothers to participate in mutual obligation activities when their youngest turns six in exchange for their Parenting Payment, has not demonstrated an increase in job opportunities or financial security. It is therefore odd to think that targeting even younger, more vulnerable parents will succeed. There is no indication that this program as designed will halt the cycle of poverty, nor will it empower young parents when the opportunities on offer are limited to the resources of the local service provider. The measurement of success appears to be the ability of the service providers to fit square pegs into round holes without any consideration of the damage done to the pegs.
[i] Australian women work on average 56.4 hours per week, but only 36 per cent of this time is in paid employment. Conversely, Australian men work 55.5 hours per week and are remunerated for 64 per cent of these hours. Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Unpaid care work and the labour market: Insight Paper.