ParentsNext doesn’t get much right – but it could with some meaningful co-design

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This week the Senate Inquiry into ParentsNext, including its trial and subsequent broader rollout published its first round of submissions. This follows months of public scrutiny after the program’s national rollout in July 2018. Sarah Squire (@SquireSarah) and Policy Whisperer Susan Maury (@SusanMaury) summarise Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand’s (@GoodAdvocacy) submission to the inquiry and suggest an alternative approach.

Access to employment and educational opportunities is essential for disrupting disadvantage, with decent work as defined by the ILO providing a fair income, job security and intangible benefits such as opportunities for social connection. Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand therefore supports in principle policies and programs which enable greater economic participation of vulnerable groups.

ParentsNext is framed as a ‘pre-employment program’ that primarily targets women with children under the age of six who have been receiving a parenting payment for at least six months continuously and have no reported employment earnings in the previous six months. It also has a particular focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals and communities.

Pre-employment programs have the potential to prepare future workers for entry in the labour market through skill development. A review of OECD countries shows these programs are particularly valuable before barriers have become entrenched, such as programs targeting young people who have left school early. However, with ParentsNext targeting women whose children are as young as 6 months, it’s worth noting there is a limited evidence base on the effectiveness of such programs in relation to single mothers of infants and toddlers.

Our submission to the current Senate Inquiry details our concerns that the design and implementation of ParentsNext undermines its stated objectives of: providing early intervention assistance to parents; helping parents identify and pursue their education and employment-related goals; and connecting parents to local services that can help them address any barriers to employment.

Our concerns centre on the following:

  • a narrow focus on mothers which undermines the role of parenting in the early years;

  • the linking of program participation to income support payments, including the authority of private contractors to suspend payments for non-compliance;

  • the program’s overreach into the family life of citizens by mandating parenting activities; and

  • a concurrent lack of investment in housing, employment policies and child care to reduce structural and cultural barriers to labour market participation.

Motherhood is hard, especially with young children, a fixed income, and little or no support from a partner. ParentsNext is not ‘helping’ when it adds activities while threatening to cut off payments.  Photo credit: Pexels .

Motherhood is hard, especially with young children, a fixed income, and little or no support from a partner. ParentsNext is not ‘helping’ when it adds activities while threatening to cut off payments. Photo credit: Pexels.

Motherhood and work

ParentsNext is based on flawed assumptions in relation to motherhood and work, including the assumption that all parents receiving income support are able to participate in paid work. There are many individual and systemic barriers to participation in employment. In our own research with single mothers, just under 25 per cent of women interviewed felt they were unable to engage in employment; reasons they gave included experiences of disability, clinical diagnoses, intensive caring duties for family members, and current or previous experiences of intimate partner violence.

We note that Australian mothers carry a heavy load of non-market caring work which limits their capacity to engage in the labour market. Infants in particular require intensive around-the-clock care, creating a practical constraint on time for other activities. The focus on parents of infants and very young children is therefore misplaced.

The implementation of ParentsNext also highlights a disconnect with the changing nature of the labour market. Fewer than half of employed Australians enjoy full time, secure employment with entitlements. There is emerging evidence of a gendered divide in the proliferation of the on-demand workforce or ‘gig economy’. The ABS has recorded a growth in secondary jobs, which indicates that primary jobs are not providing enough income to cover the cost of living and other expenses. Coupled with other characteristics of women’s employment such as occupational segregation, the gender pay gap, the flexibility gap, overrepresentation in part-time work (44 per cent of all employed women work part time compared to 16 per cent for men), the poor quality of many part-time roles and low wage growth in recent years, a job will not necessarily provide increased financial security for ParentsNext participants.

Despite this, ParentsNext providers receive an ‘outcome payment’ when a participant achieves ‘sustainable employment’ – which is defined as a minimum of 15 hours per week in paid employment for at least 12 weeks. This financial reward for the provider is unlikely to generate sustainable financial outcomes for clients. However, as the recently published evaluation of ParentsNext did not explore the quality of client employment, it is difficult to accurately assess the impact of the program in this area.  

The government is heavily promoting ParentsNext as a highly successful program. While it may be helping some women, there is ample evidence that many find it oppressive and works against the best interests of themselves and their children.

Welfare conditionality is punitive and does not work

An underlying problem with ParentsNext is that participation is compliance-focussed, and that support is conditional. The program has been developed in line with a shift in Australia and countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom towards welfare conditionality (or ‘mutual obligation’ in Australian parlance) in the provision of social security. However, longitudinal evidence collected in the United Kingdom shows that a harsh regime of welfare conditionality is largely ineffective and rarely results in shifts from income support into secure employment.

Emerging evidence suggests that ParentsNext, as with other conditional programs, is driven by compliance and short-term outcomes rather than the long-term economic security or health and wellbeing of participants. Inflexibility in program delivery is resulting in poor service for many clients, who may be experiencing complex forms of disadvantage. This is evident in the stories of clients at Good Shepherd services, and in recent media reports (see here, here and here), as well as a recent survey administered by the National and Victorian Councils of Single Mothers and their Children.

ParentsNext is also at odds with Australia’s human rights obligations, particularly with respect to single parents and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – the two groups targeted by this form of welfare conditionality.

Government overreach into family life

ParentsNext includes a focus on improving parenting skills which bear no relation to labour market outcomes. Single mothers are compelled to take their children to activities such as ‘storytime’ sessions at local libraries and swimming lessons, regardless of the suitability of these programs for individual children, schedules, or such barriers to participation as an unwell child or one who has overslept at naptime. Adding to the illogic of the Department of Jobs and Small Business overseeing mandated parenting activities framed as ‘support’, the National and Victorian Councils of Single Mothers and their Children survey (p 18) shows that activities extend to participation in ‘coffee and art’ clubs. This aspect of the program is an unnecessary government incursion into participants’ family life which potentially undermines their agency, confidence and self-efficacy.

The potential of ParentsNext

There is potential for ParentsNext to be redesigned to provide genuine assistance to mothers with young children. The employability of this cohort could be enhanced if the program is structured in a way that enables rather than punishes them through a one-size-fits-all approach and compliance-driven activities. A voluntary program that incorporates tailored, holistic support which is coupled with an increase in the level of income and other supports, would achieve better outcomes for single mothers and their children. Many mothers of young children are already undertaking further education or other activities to improve their job readiness at a slow pace while their children are young; tick-a-box compliance meetings and threats of financial sanctions function as a hindrance and interfere with their intrinsic motivation.

A better approach to supporting parenting in the early years is to fund voluntary, community-based programs. An example is Good Shepherd’s Sydney Young Parents Program, which provides individual support, role modelling and reinforcement of positive parenting practices, and social connectedness through the non-stigmatising environment of a supported playgroup. Evidence provided to the Senate Inquiry by Playgroup Australia supports this approach. Community based programs such as these should be funded by the Department of Human Services and delivered by not-for-profit community services organisations with the skills and practice wisdom to support vulnerable clients with complex needs.

Further, ParentsNext does not exist in a vacuum and should not be viewed in isolation from other policy and program supports for parents combining employment and child rearing. Changes to general employment and child care policies reduce structural and cultural barriers to labour market participation and help all parents reconcile the demands of paid work and family life. These include: strengthening paid parental leave, including improving dad and partner pay to encourage more men into unpaid caring work; workplace-based flexible work arrangements; strengthening right to request flexible work provisions, including an enforcement mechanism; improving access to child care, including through increased subsidies and greater availability outside of regular working hours; and measures to improve gender pay equity through the industrial relations system.

It is also necessary to revisit current policy in relation to child support, which is often unavailable to single parents.

The words of one single parent summarise several of our concerns and point to an alternative approach:

“Help is fantastic. Telling parents that they will not have rent money if they don’t click a button on a certain day or if there is a glitch in the system their payment might not go through, is gross. I am a person who can’t wait to get back into full time work. I organised all my study and child care etc . . . Living on $19,000 had not been for my enjoyment but I have done that so that my daughter got the attention she deserved in her formative years . . . Make people feel confident not like they are sh*t and begging.”

Mothers with very young children who are also reliant on income support are highly motivated to ensure the long-term financial security of their households. By listening to their concerns and needs, making the program voluntary, and decoupling it from the compliance framework, ParentsNext has an opportunity to make a real and lasting impact.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here and follow us on Twitter @PolicyforWomen