Family Matters No. 28 - April 1991

Sole Parent Pension: A bridge for solo players?

Kate Funder

Abstract

The Institute's Parents and Children after Marriage Breakdown Survey examined the ways in which new partners/ spouses enter the lives of divorced parents and their children. The author presents findings, discussing willingness to share parenting and take responsibility for children; support and parent wellbeing; support and child wellbeing; relationships between parent, former spouse and new partner.

Kate Funder, AIFS Fellow, describes patterns of divorced mothers' return to paid employment and their reliance on social security. The findings are from the Institute's study of parents and children after marriage breakdown.

The Sole Parent Pension is designed as a public underpinning for parents who, without a resident partner, can no longer support themselves and their children while caring for them. Marriage breakdown, a crisis which disorganises the care and financial provision for children, accounts for 65 per cent of parents in receipt of this benefit.

After final separation, the care and supervision of children in four out of five cases remains with the mother, and the major part of the family's income with the non- resident father. Child maintenance is designed to transfer some of this income to the children's household. Clearly, no matter how seriously parents take their responsibilities, earnings are often insufficient to stretch across two newly - formed households. At this point, the State provides a 'safety net' to the children's household until such time as the mother either earns a survival income or repartners.

The public has a legitimate interest in how the Sole Parent Pension is used. If some parents are not contributing to their children, to the extent that they are able, we are rightly concerned. This concern springs from an interest in fairness in public/private distribution of responsibility for children, and from a desire for equity between two-parent and so-called one-parent families. Parents are expected to take financial responsibility for their children when they live together - why not when they are apart? The image of women who receive the Sole Parent Pension as 'bludgers' is well known and probably stems from this concern. There are sole parents of all moral hues, but what picture best fits the recipient of the Sole Parent Pension? Is the benefit used as a safety net for crisis relief, or as a long-term economic strategy? If the latter, is it fair and appropriate?

Figure 1 shows the movement off Social Security of mothers with dependent children over the five to eight years after separation. Although drawn from a random stratified sample of divorces in Victoria in 1981 and 1983, these mothers had some special features: they were previously married for 5-14 years, had two children, were somewhat better educated than the population and likely to be English speaking women. Within these limits, however, the Institute study provides a view of the use of social security over time. Trends are derived from two interviews which took place in the years following separation.

  • Who uses social security? Almost four out of five women (77 per cent) relied on the Sole Parent Pension at some time, most commencing their first and only period on the benefit within six months of the final separation. The Sole Parent Pension certainly appears to begin as crisis relief
  • How long did women spend on the benefit? The average time on the Sole Parent Pension for this group was 3.4 years. 
  • Is the Sole Parent Pension used as a bridge? The slope of the movement off the benefit is steepest in the first year when one in five users became independent. By the end of five years almost two-thirds were no longer users; a third were still dependent. Entry into paid employment signified the end of the Sole Parent Pension for 57 per cent and repartnering for 43 per cent.
  • Is there an identifiable set of 'drones'? This question is harder to answer. If longer-term recipients were considered more likely to be abusing the system (not returning to paid work when they could reasonably be expected to do so), then there were few distinguishing features to this group. Previous employment at the time of separation and having earned a 'living wage' during the marriage meant mothers spent less time on the benefit. What is apparent from Figure 1 is that long-term receipt of the benefit is not the most common picture. Most women are geared towards financial independence.

Figure 2 shows the other side of mothers' re-organisation of the household economy. The key feature of the figure is the parallel nature of the trends into paid employment and the steep slope in the first year, signifying rapid re-entry after separation. The figure shows only the most rapid and the slowest groups identified in the study. The slowest to return were mothers with a pre-school child; the fastest were mothers with professional occupations. Within these parameters, women in this study were 'on track' back to work. Even those with few qualifications and little recent work experience were 'on the way', though more slowly.

Overall Picture

In summary, then, the picture appears to be as follows.

  • Most mothers need a 'safety net' for some time after the crisis of marriage breakdown.
  • For most mothers, the Sole Parent Pension is a bridge to re-establishing their households; on the other hand, most mothers are on their way back into paid employment, either directly or after repartnering.
  • However, mothers not living in a household with private income at the end of five years, though not typical of the group, require particular attention. They can not be described by single characteristics in the Institute study, but combinations of psychological and physical illness, lack of skills and poor access to jobs, and special needs of children are widely associated with long-term dependency. On the other hand, there may well be cases within this group whose needs and capacity should be re-assessed.

These trends do not, however, support a general picture of long-term static dependence; to confuse the special circumstances of a minority with a general lack of willingness to become self-sufficient would be a poor basis for policy planning. The Sole Parent Pension is a necessary plank in the bridge which generally leads to the re-establishment of a functioning economy in which children are reared.