Australia must consider taking up the mantle of other governments and begin to budget for policy measures specifically for children, Sharon Bessell writes.
Immediately following its announcement, this year’s federal budget was described as having ‘something for everyone’. As the analysis unfolded though, cracks emerged, and it became clear that some groups and issues were neglected.
One of the most neglected groups in the budget is children. There are measures in the budget that may trickle down to children, but no specific attention is given to those in Australian society who have not yet reached voting age. On child poverty specifically, the silence is almost deafening.
Australia’s record in addressing child poverty is poor. Prior to COVID-19, almost 18 per cent of children lived in households that were 50 per cent below median income. This is far too high for a wealthy country such as Australia, and high compared with other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
Our research has developed a framework for assessing, understanding, and responding to child poverty based on the things that children consider to be especially important. The result is the child-centred ‘MOR’ framework, which identifies three dimensions of child poverty: material basics, opportunity, and relationships.
So how does the budget perform when assessed across these three dimensions?
First to material basics. This dimension includes several themes, of which income and housing are essential. The budget does little to address either for children living in poverty.
The Australian Government’s position on income support was revealed prior to the budget when the new permanent rate for JobSeeker was announced. While above the very low rate of pre-pandemic unemployment benefits, the permanent rate was still set considerably below the coronavirus supplement that was in place in 2020 – and below the poverty line of 50 per cent of median household income.
While the coronavirus supplements were in place, an estimated 2.2 million people were kept from falling into poverty. According to the Australia Institute, 75,000 children were lifted out of poverty as soon as the supplements took effect, but given that over a million children live in households that receive social security benefits to which the supplements applied, the figure is likely to be far higher. This meant the immediate impact of the removal of coronavirus supplements was deepening poverty, especially for children.
Prior to the introduction of the coronavirus supplements, children in sole parent families were most vulnerable to poverty. While 18 per cent of children living in sole parent families, they made up over 41 per cent of children living in poverty. The situation for sole mother households was even more dire, with 37.2 per cent of sole mother families in poverty, compared with 17.5 per cent of those with a sole father. Families relying on unemployment benefits or parenting allowances were the two groups most likely to be in poverty.
With the introduction of the supplements, research found that families were able to afford more nutritious food for children, pay bills on time, and access medical care.
The decision to reduce coronavirus supplements, including JobSeeker, parenting payments, and disability/carer payments, was in essence a decision to allow the high rates of child poverty that existed before COVID-19 to continue.
While the budget was silent on income support, the government announced support for 10,000 single parents to buy into the housing market with a two per cent deposit. However, this is of little comfort to the high proportion of single parents living in poverty, for whom soaring house prices keep home ownership out of reach and saving even a two per cent deposit is an impossibility.
In sum, the budget failed to address the urgent material needs of children in families experiencing poverty.
The second dimension of the MOR framework for assessing child poverty is opportunity. This includes learning and development, as well as community participation. How does the budget stack up in this dimension?
The approach, however, is not child-centred, rather, the emphasis is on encouraging women’s labour force participation. Of course, enabling parents – female and male – to engage in paid employment is critical, but this should not be confused with measures that focus on the nature and quality of childcare and the experience of children.
For too long in Australia, childcare has been discussed primarily as a labour market issue or more worryingly, as a women’s issue.
Childcare is a major social policy issue, and one that impacts daily on our youngest citizens, and should be treated as such.
Three factors are essential to consider in a child-centred approach to childcare. First, high quality, inclusive early childhood care and development experiences for children. Second, well trained, valued, and well renumerated staff. Third, access for all families is essential, particularly those who are struggling with poverty. The budget fails to address the first two of these and does not adequately address the third.
The one bright spot in the budget was funding for pre-school attendance, but there was little to address inequities across the education system.
Ultimately, the budget falls short in terms of child-centred learning and development opportunities, and it is totally silent on the ways in which strong and supportive communities can provide an opportunity for children to actively participate.
The third dimension of the MOR framework for assessing child poverty is relationships, and focuses on the interpersonal deprivation that children experience as a result of poverty. This is a particularly complex dimension of child poverty, but one where funding has the potential to lead important systems reform.
In our research, children described the ways in which financial stress, unemployment and underemployment, and precarious work impacted their time and relationships with their parents. Not using the budget to address social security or low wage growth showcases the government’s failure to understand how these issues impact children. This is a missed opportunity.
Finally, the stigma against receiving social security impacts negatively on children’s sense of their place within their communities and the level of scrutiny associated with welfare places additional pressures on families. The ways this impacts children has been ignored in the budget process.
Globally, there has been important work done around children’s budgeting, whereby budgets are designed to be child-inclusive and child-responsive. These initiatives recognise that children have heterogeneous needs and rights, and that they are very often distinct from those of adults, including their parents, and Australia could follow suit.
In contrast, the government’s approach subsumes children into families and fails to recognise and respond to their needs. It is time for Australia to consider the benefits of assessing budgeting on particular social groups, including children, and especially children who are growing up in poverty, and take the urgent issue of ending child poverty far more seriously.
The author would like to acknowledge and thank Angie Bexley and Celia Vuckovic for critical contributions into the development of the MOR Framework for Assessing Child Poverty.