ParentsNext - Activating why? Activating how?
In today’s post, Dr Simone Casey takes a close look at the underpinnings of ParentsNext, a widely-criticised program that aims to encourage eligible parents to plan and prepare for employment by the time their children start school. Dr Casey is an Associate of the RMIT Future Social Services Institute and this post draws on her research into resistance in employment services and the construct of the welfare subject .
The ParentsNext program imposes new conditions on welfare payments for parents with children from 6-months of age. The program activates parents deemed to be at risk of ‘intergenerational welfare dependence’ by requiring them to make a plan and participate in activities with the aim of building their social skills and capacity to undertake paid work. ParentsNext was expanded nationally in July 2018 and the implementation was quickly followed by alarm at the effects of these requirements on sole parent families. This alarm led to a Senate Inquiry, which held a public hearing in late February 2019. This article examines the how, what, who and why of ParentsNext in the light of the primary concerns about the program reported to the Senate Inquiry.
The Senate Inquiry provided a forum where the views of welfare advocates were pitted against bureaucrat service designers and employment services administrators. It was also a forum in which the competing moral-philosophic paradigms of welfare rights in Australia were on full display. The ‘deservedness’ of different types of welfare subjects was captured in the ‘lifters and leaners’ debate that accompanied the present conservative Coalition Government’s first budget. In terms of activation program design, the construal of welfare subjects as ‘leaners’ entitles governments to impose onerous conditions on their welfare payments. Evidence provided to the inquiry about the program’s rationale reflected the view that intergenerational welfare dependence was prevalent amongst young single parents.
Since the 1980s, welfare reform in Australia has targeted single parents (of whom 95% are women), because the numbers of recipients of Parenting Payment had been growing steadily. As in the case of other forms of welfare payment expenditure, these outlays were contained by introducing activation initiatives. For the purpose of this article, this population will be referred to as sole parents, to disassociate some of the negative connotations of welfare dependence. However, it is important to pause to reflect on the moral conservatism which has informed the single mother welfare queen discourse. That is because it provides political justification for introducing measures which effectively limit recognition for the unpaid care work done by mothers whose income is derived from welfare payments.
It could be argued that recognition for ‘care-work’ or ‘love-work’ has been under attack by waves of activation initiatives accompanied by conditional welfare requirements. The impact of first wave of sole parent activation began with the Australian Working Together reforms in the 1990s. They were reinforced, over a period of 10 years, by the far more challenging 2006 welfare to work measures which shifted parents from single parent payments to Newstart. By reducing welfare payments, this effectively introduced two forms of behavioural incentive: activation and income-based conditionality. These reforms are widely accepted to have increased the poverty levels of single parent families and have had negative impacts on parental well-being.
Despite this evidence, ParentsNext extended welfare conditionality in specific locations where data on numbers of parenting payment claimants and their ethnicity were used to target families with children as young as 6 months. This national rollout was preceded by two pilots. The first extended the support offered on a voluntary basis to teen parents, and the second, to a broader group. The national rollout was achieved by creating a special classes of person instrument through which parenting payment claimants in the trial and the expanded locations were identified as having ‘mutual obligations’. Through this mechanism, parents in the target areas were brought into the mutual obligation enforcement framework called the Targeted Compliance Framework (TCF).
There are three main issues with ParentsNext identified in the public conversation that accompanied the Senate Inquiry. In terms of the question framed in this article’s title, there are concerns about how, what, who and why of ParentsNext activation and welfare conditionality.
1. The first issue relates to the how of welfare conditionality particularly because TCF self-reporting has resulted in a high volume of payment suspensions. Arguably, the interaction between ParentsNext and TCF compromises the ‘right to social security’ despite the human rights assessments that accompanied the passage of the legislation. Furthermore, the TCF itself is complicated and providers are obliged to implement rules that have caused further harm to families already struggling on low incomes.
2. Secondly, in terms of what type of activity sole parents are required to do has caused controversy. The activities that have been the focus of criticism include those that parents would normally engage in, when they were ready, such as story time or play group. While these activities have benefits, their role in a pre-employment program has been queried. Furthermore, facilities such as the libraries where these activities have been scheduled have objected to being roped into providing de facto surveillance of parents attendance at these activities.
3. Thirdly, there is the vexed question of who the program targets and why. The discriminatory targeting of Indigenous parents for the program have drawn the ire of the Human Rights Commissioner. There is also gender discrimination underpinning the assumption that the best form of welfare is a job, while the unpaid care, or love-work is not recognised as legitimate work except for the wealthy. It has not escaped notice that the Minister for Jobs, Kelly O’Dwyer resigned her seat so that she can spend more time with her young family. The privilege of the rich versus poor mothers could not have been more starkly contrasted.
The ethics and efficacy of welfare conditionality are under scrutiny in the debate about ParentsNext. The debate reflects deep moral divisions in social and public policy about the rights of welfare subjects. Future social policy on these matters should engage boldly with the moral informants and substance of our welfare system, who it benefits, what is a reasonable level of activation and how important decisions that affect the immediate welfare of vulnerable people are managed. This could be improved through the application of a more robust framework for evaluating the ethics of activation programs than the current Human Rights legislative scrutiny.