Issue 54

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Family Matters No. 54, 1999

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Families, welfare and social policy

This edition of Family Matters focuses on the theme of ‘Families, welfare and social policy’. It is a very timely edition, coming at the commencement of a period of major review of the social welfare system in Australia

Articles in this issue of Family Matters are only available as PDF documents and do not meet the latest web accessibility standards. If you are unable to access any of the articles in this issue of Family Matters please contact us and we will endeavour to provide the article/s you need in a format that you can use.

Publication details

Family Matters No. 54
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, September 1999, XX pp.
1030-2646 (print) 1832-8318 (online)

Copyright information


Welfare reform and the family

Lawrence Mead

Reform of the welfare and social security systems is at the forefront of political debate in many western nations, including Australia. With the aim of contributing to the debate, this issue of Family Matters includes papers by writers both from within and from outside Australia. This article provides an overview of the papers presented, and of the debate. Themes are summarised, with discussion of the welfare state and social cohesion; increasing reliance on state welfare; the problem of welfare dependency; tackling welfare dependency; the reform agenda; the wider context; and what governments can / should do.

Welfare dependency and economic opportunity

Frank Field

In this paper, the author criticises and evaluates Lawrence Mead's 'Welfare reform and the family', and offers a British perspective on welfare dependency and economic opportunity. The British welfare rolls are not dominated by single parent claimants to the degree they are in the United States, explains the author. It has been the collapse of the job market for semi-skilled and unskilled males which has had the greatest impact, both directly and indirectly, on the composition of those on welfare and the length of time spent on welfare, and thereby on the functioning of families. And once on the rolls for what appears like an indefinite period, there are changes in attitude and behaviour for a significant number of poor people of working age. The perceived near irrelevance of marriage for many poorer people has been reinforced by tax and welfare systems giving privileges to single parent status. The author argues that while it is crucial to develop still further the 'help and hassle' strategy which underpins proactive welfare, this approach alone will not see significant reductions in unemployment in those areas suffering a major job deficit. The demand as well as the supply sides of labour require attention.

Welfare reform in Britain, Australia and the United States

Alan Buckingham

In the United States, radical welfare reform now leaves individuals with no alternative to finding and keeping a job, and the government has forced lone parents into employment whether they want it or not. Although the principle of 'mutual obligation' lies at the heart of recent welfare reforms in Britain and Australia too, the policies that have been adopted so far have been much less dramatic than in the US, particularly with regard to the welfare rights of lone parents. Eventually, however, Britain and Australia will have to confront the same tough choice which the Americans have faced: do we want to defend the right of lone parents to choose not to work, or do we really want to reduce the levels of welfare dependency? (Journal abstract)

Positive and negative welfare and Australia's indigenous communities

Noel Pearson

Focusing on the indigenous community of Cape York Peninsula, the author states that their economic and social situation is parlous, and the statistics so outrageous that they are routinely greeted with numb acceptance. The problems are so overwhelming that even the Aboriginal society comes to accept its own state of dysfunction. He describes policy failure and the entrenchment of welfare, and argues that the key problem with welfare is that it inherently does not demand reciprocity. The provision, without reciprocity, of income support to able bodied people of working age can be seen as 'negative' welfare, inducing passivity and dependence. The author argues that we need to develop policies and make the decisions about changing the way in which things are done in our communities, and the way in which economic resources are distributed throughout our society. Leaders in disadvantaged locations like Cape York must develop a conscious and long-term strategy for their home regions and communities, and work with the state in reforming welfare resources into sources of personal empowerment. They must understand the central importance of education and the encouragement of enterprise, achievement and success amongst their people.

The Commonwealth Government's approach to family policy

Jocelyn Newman

This article outlines the government's objectives and achievements in family policy and reveals that future directions for family policy will focus on prevention and early intervention with a view to strengthening families. The aims of the National Families Strategy are discussed. The article is followed by an outline of significant new developments in welfare policy since the article was written. Principles which have been identified to guide welfare reform are outlined, and brief information is provided about the Reference Group on Welfare Reform which has been formed.

Is the Australian family becoming an endangered species?

Wayne Swan

Is the fact that fewer families are having children a cause for alarm or a sign of progress? The author of this paper argues that it is driving our birth rate to record lows and contributing to the development of a society and institutions that are not sensitive to children. Also of concern is the disproportionate number of children now being raised in single income households and in households where neither parent works. The author argues that fertility is falling because the costs of having children have been rising, and that the government should reduce the costs to parents of raising children, for example, through increased tax relief, targeted benefits, provision of child care and other related interventions. We must modernise family policy at the national level to prevent the Australian family from becoming an endangered species. He discusses the plight of low and middle income families, criticises what the government is doing, and outlines the family policy agenda of the Labor Opposition.

Developing a national family policy

Kevin Andrews

Evidence suggests that the breakdown of marriages and the disintegration of family structures is a common factor in a range of worsening social problems such as youth suicide, youth homelessness, child abuse, and alcohol and drug abuse among teenagers. The author argues that the challenge for public policy is to develop strategies that strengthen marriage and relationships. He outlines initiatives implemented by the Federal Coalition government since 1996, and identifies and discusses three core components of a broad family policy: a specific commitment to family policy; taxation reform that recognises the cost to parents of raising children; and the importance of supporting marriage.

Taxation and family income

Lucy Sullivan

The author argues that governments need to redirect money from single people to families with children if families are to cope with the costs of raising children. She suggests that this used to happen, but that an unintended result of tax changes from the 1970s onwards, together with legislation intended to equalise wages for men and women, has been that families with children have become disadvantaged. We need to rethink our conceptions of 'social justice' to reflect the inequality of spending power between people with children and those without.



Impact of new tax legislation on households

David Johnson

The new tax legislation that was passed in July 1999 has two main parts: the replacement of existing indirect taxes by a new goods and services tax, and large cuts to personal income tax and increases in pensions and benefits. The net effect will be an increase in purchasing power for families. But will the benefits be as great as might initially be expected? This article is concerned with the likely effect of the new legislation on households and families.



Mothers in the labour force: A step forward and two back?

Belinda Probert

The author talks about two different (but ultimately related) frameworks within which we might think about the work - family - mother nexus - frameworks that take us beyond the current enthusiasm for identifying and praising 'family friendly' employers as harbingers of a bright new future. The first framework involves looking at the widest possible policy developments that are shaping the labour force experience of mothers, not just so-called family policy, and the specific proposition that while so much change has been occurring in a forward looking direction, there has been even more change that is working in the opposite direction, taking us at least one step backward for every one forward. These changes include things like widespread increases in work pressure, and reduced industrial protection from un-family-friendly employment practices. The second framework discussed by the author is one that gives greater weight to the subjective experience of mothers, particularly the experience that is so often described as 'juggling', as though this adequately captures the skills required. She refers to the substantial failure of the imagination and the policy development process to move beyond a family-as-deficit model at work, and argues that it would seem to be time for more critical reflection.

Child poverty across the industrialised world

Bruce Bradbury

Why is there so much variation in child poverty rates between countries at similar levels of economic development? What roles do differences in family structure (for example, sole parenthood), labour markets (for example, unemployment), and welfare state institutions (income transfer programs) play in explaining this variation? This article presents results from a recent UNICEF study of patterns of child poverty across the industrialised world. The study is based on Luxembourg Income Study data for the early to mid 1990s.


The private costs of children in 1993-94: Latest research

Ann Harding and Richard Percival

For many years, Family Matters has provided updated estimates of the cost of raising children. Issue no.53 carried two papers which calculated new sets of estimates based on two different methodological approaches: Costs of children in Australian households: new estimates from the ABS Household Expenditure Survey by Ma. Rebecca Valenzuela from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research; and Budget standards and the costs of children by Peter Saunders from the Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales. These are now followed up with this article by researchers from the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) at the University of Canberra, who develop a third approach, often termed the ISO-PROP method. The estimates described here come out mid-way between the other two. The calculations take account of family income and family size, and are expressed in terms of percentage differences - which should allow readers to update cost estimates as new family expenditure data are released in future waves. The methodology is described, and estimates of average costs are provided.

Research in premarriage education: Institute hosts round table

Robyn Parker

How effective are premarriage education programs in promoting strong and stable marital and family relationships? The author reports on a round table held recently at the Australian Institute of Family Studies that examined the current status of premarriage research, and generated a framework for future research into programs designed to prepare couples for marriage and family life.



National Families Strategy: Update

Peter Saunders

The Winter 1999 issue of Family Matters included an article by the Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Jocelyn Newman, outlining the government's new National Families Strategy. This article briefly updates information about the Strategy, describing the launch of two pilot marriage education voucher schemes - one in Perth, the other in Launceston.



Opinion: Individualism, economic development and the decline of the western family

Deepak Lal

The main check on the individualistic side of our nature has historically come from religious morality. In the west, however, argues the author of this article, Christianity evolved as an individualistic religion, and pursuit of individual gratification was only held in check by a fierce guilt culture. With the 'death of God' in the late nineteenth century, this constraint was removed, and the effect can be seen today in the erosion of traditional family life. Today, the author suggests, when romantic passion dissipates (as inevitably it does when the brain's receptors become desensitised to the release of phenylethylamine), nothing remains to bind us to our partners.