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Family Matters No. 32 - August 1992

Adult in the eyes of the state

Robyn Hartley

Abstract

The author traces recent changes in youth income support conditions, and highlights what they imply about independence of, and responsibility for, young people. She argues that the changes convey negative messages to young people about the value society places on them.

 

 

      Ten years ago, young people over 18 years old were paid the adult rate of unemployment benefits, irrespective of whether they lived with their parents. Although payments to the under-18s were considerably less, they were not means- tested against parental income; being available for work was regarded in itself as a marker of some independence.

Now, there are four rates of payment for unemployed under-21-year- olds, depending on age and circumstance. The age categories cover 16-17 year-olds and 18-20 year- olds, and there are different rates for young people living with their parents and away from home. Further, payments to under-18-year-olds living at home are now means- tested.

So while a 20-year-old available for full-time work and living at home at the beginning of the 1980s had the status of an adult in the eyes of the state, this is no longer the case as far as unemployment benefits are concerned. Further, a 20- year-old available for work and living independently now receives less than the adult rate for over 21-year-olds: $117.10 per week compared with $138.85.

These changes reflect changing definitions of independence and the lengthening of the 'pre-adult' period of dependency on parents (or on the state). Young people's dependence has been prolonged by greatly reduced full-time work opportunities, increased time spent in education, youth wage rates that make living away from home impossible or very precarious, and a lack of affordable housing.

They also indicate that families, particularly those on low and average incomes, are being expected to bear the brunt of the recession and structural changes in the labour market.

Finally, the changes convey negative messages to young people about the value society places on them. Twenty- year-olds receiving $77.10 per week on the dole and living with parents who may themselves be unemployed are not likely to feel good about themselves or hopeful about the future; nor is a 20-year-old trying to survive independently on $117.10 per week. Nor, for that matter, is any young person facing adulthood and unable to exercise the independence and responsibility that that should entail.

Broadly-based, flexible education and training linked to real employment options is crucial. However, present proposals, such as a youth training wage and voluntary youth service, must be considered very carefully to ensure that young people are not disadvantaged. While the real solution lies in employment, income support for unemployed under-21-year- olds is inadequate, adding significantly to numbers living in poverty and severely damaging young people's confidence for the future.