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In the Treasurer's ideal world unfairness would rule

By Elizabeth Hill - posted Tuesday, 12 April 2005

So it’s rights for the wealthy and responsibilities for the poor. When it comes to addressing the labour shortage, Peter Costello expects single mothers from welfare-dependent households to perform a public duty not required of their more highly resourced married sisters.

In a speech recently, the Treasurer argued that single parents, the vast majority of whom are women, have a public responsibility to look for part-time work once their youngest child begins school. Mothers from better-resourced, two-parent households, however, were spared the Treasurer's rod. Left alone with public subsidy Family Tax Benefit Part B, married women are free to exercise their right to choose when and how they mix paid employment with parenting responsibilities. Single mums are not so lucky.

That women from high-income "traditional" family households are treated differently to women from poorer, single-parent households is not news to economists and social scientists who study family policy. At every twist and turn of the work and family debate, the Federal Government has established rules and economic incentives that reward mothers (and families) that adhere to its version of the "ideal" family - a single-income married couple - and punish those who deviate from this "norm".


Costello's idea to impose workforce participation on single mothers with school-aged children is just the latest version of this highly inequitable approach to work and family policy.

Women with children from poorer households should not be expected to contribute to the paid workforce in ways that women from more highly resourced households are not. That Costello burdens poorer single mothers with the public responsibility to boost the labour supply is not only unfair, it is punitive and ultimately unworkable.

There is little doubt that paid employment is the best antidote to poverty, and as the Treasurer pointed out in his speech, there are a great variety of economic, social and psychological benefits to be gained from participating in the labour market.

Nevertheless, the argument that single mothers are well placed to boost labour supply shows that the Treasurer lacks understanding of the significant constraints parents generally, and single parents more specifically, confront when they step out of the home and into the Australian labour market.

First is the child-care constraint. Many studies report the supply of child care and after-school care lags demand. The equation here is simple: no access to after-school care, no single parents signing up to the labour market. Someone has to care for the kids, and a work day that falls within school hours is not a feature of the Australian labour market.

Second is the paucity of well-paid, part-time work on offer, particularly in skilled occupations. Women with professional skills find part-time work in their area of expertise extremely difficult to come by.


If the Treasurer and his Government were serious about boosting the labour market participation of women with school-aged children, workplace relations reforms would include a requirement for employers to provide more part-time work. As it stands, women with school-aged children are expected to demonstrate far more flexibility than employers.

Third are the constraints associated with casual work. Women who are unable to find regular part-time employment find themselves relegated to the bottom end of the labour market where work is casualised and less well paid. Casual work might be "flexible" but as research by Barbara Pocock shows, flexibility is mostly on the employers' side, with employees feeling obliged to take any shift on offer for fear they will not be included in the next roster. These unpredictable work hours are at odds with regular child-care arrangements.

Some single parents may be able to draw on the support of friends and family to bridge "gaps" in care, but these options are only sometimes available and rarely sustainable.

In spite of these constraints, some of the most disadvantaged in our community are being loaded with the public responsibility to increase their labour market participation as a means of addressing structural problems in the Australian labour market.

Costello appears insistent on outsourcing the task of reinvigorating the labour market to single mothers while leaving more highly resourced married women free to exercise their right to work or not.

This approach to work and family policy is unjust and unworkable.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 6, 2005.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Hill teaches political economy at the University of Sydney and is co-convener of The Family Policy Round Table

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