Family Matters No. 87 - April 2011

Overview: Supporting families in challenging times

Lixia Qu

Australia enjoys higher living standards than many other countries; however, not all families in this country are living prosperously. Some families struggle to make ends meet and child poverty continues to be a serious social issue. Unforeseeable events can also throw families in the “deep end”. The recent floods and cyclones in some states—Queensland in particular—and the devastating earthquake in New Zealand and tsunami in Japan, are examples of this. In challenging times such as these, some families are likely to face greater difficulties and experience longer term negative effects on their wellbeing than others.

Research that increases our understanding of factors promoting and hindering the wellbeing of individuals and families in different circumstances is important to provide an evidence base for policy development and adjustment. Conferences, such as the biennial ones run by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, represent an important opportunity for researchers, service providers, practitioners and policy-makers to exchange ideas and knowledge. This edition of Family Matters includes six papers, including the three keynote presentations, that were presented at the Institute’s most recent (11th) conference, held in July 2010.

Aletha Huston’s keynote address focuses on the effectiveness of public policy in alleviating child poverty, and the influence of research on policy development and the design of various supporting families programs. She begins by reviewing the definition of poverty used in Western countries and points out that the definition used in the US is expressed in terms of material deprivation alone and measured in absolute rather than relative terms, unlike European countries and Australia, which now see poverty as entailing a set of broad dimensions of social exclusion. As such, the conceptualisation of poverty in the US fails to recognise the range of disadvantages that people living in poverty have to endure. Huston observes that two policy streams have thus been operating in the last few decades in the US, with each having different underlying assumptions about the causes of poverty. One policy stream focuses on changing individual behaviours (such as through skills training), with the assumption being that certain personal characteristics are key causal factors of poverty (a “social selection” theory). The other stream aims to remove barriers that keep people in poverty and to generate opportunities for them to escape poverty (such as through job creation), which is guided by the view that poverty is largely explained by social circumstances (a “social causation” theory).

Huston presents two evidence-based policy examples that have generally been considered to be effective: early childhood intervention programs and employment-based welfare programs for low-income parents. While the programs of both policies, which are based on either the social selection or social causation theory, have improved children’s lives, they have not been successful in closing the gap between disadvantaged and other families, and any initial improvements that were achieved in some of the programs have gradually faded. Thus, Huston argues that it is necessary to develop a new conceptual framework for policy development that incorporates a more informed appreciation of the causes of poverty and a refinement of the definition of poverty itself. She further maintains that policies are likely to be more effective if they are designed on the basis of both social selection and social causation theories rather than being built solely on one or the other. She emphasises that defining poverty should go beyond the narrow lens of material deprivation and be broadened to incorporate social exclusion. In her view, this approach would lead to better policy development.

Jane Millar presents a longitudinal qualitative study that followed the experiences of sole mothers in the labour market in the early to mid first decade of the new millennium. As she notes, sole mothers represent one of the most disadvantaged groups in Western society and therefore tend to be targeted in social policy. In this keynote address, Millar first details various policies that have been implemented in the UK to encourage sole parents to enter the labour force, including improving the accessibility and affordability of child care and the provision of skills training and financial incentives such as tax credits. Millar’s study investigated the labour force experiences of sole mothers in the UK over four to five years, from 2002–03 to 20071 and found that the road to entering and sustaining paid work is far from easy for many. While the majority of sole mothers in the study had engaged in paid work, they had difficulty in sustaining employment, with changes in jobs and work hours being a common experience. In addition to the insecure nature of their employment, they tended to hold low paid jobs. Consequently, their financial positions remained stagnant after having initially improved through moving from income support to paid work.

Like couple mothers, balancing work and family responsibilities is obviously an issue confronting sole mothers who enter the labour force. Millar highlights the constant struggle experienced by many sole mothers during the period investigated in relation to looking after their families and staying in paid work. In the last few years, the global financial crisis has led some governments to cut spending on social welfare and services. Millar argues that the provision of reliable and secure government support to working families becomes even more important in challenging times such as these, when such families are particularly vulnerable and less able to fend for themselves. Millar maintains that while the UK’s welfare-to-work policies have been effective in their first five or so years, the effects are unlikely to be sustainable over time, especially in times of economic downturn and rising unemployment.

Naomi Eisenstadt, a former Director of the Social Exclusion Taskforce set up by the British government in 2007 to bring the marginalised into mainstream society, outlined a new framework—Think Family—which the taskforce adopted under her direction. The key features of the Think Family framework include a coordinated support system, a focus on the needs of all family members, building on family strengths, and the provision of tailored support. In her brief history of public sector reforms in Britain, Eisenstadt stresses that a minority tend to miss out, despite the fact that each reform has benefited many people’s lives. More importantly, the minority who has missed out has had difficulties that are increasingly complex and experienced on multiple fronts. She argues that disadvantages tend to “clump together” and interact with each other, and thus often lead to poor outcomes for children. While society has become more prosperous, the gap between the top and bottom of the social gradient has widened. Without policy intervention, disadvantaged families would fall further behind; thus, Eisenstadt argues that social policies need “a more nuanced approach”. In this context, she maintains that good policy practices tend to focus on a particular group and have a lead professional working with each family. This means that such professionals must have a small case load to enable them to concentrate on and build a strong and continuing relationship with just a few families. While developing such practices may entail higher costs, not doing so will result in the even higher social costs of having poor outcomes for children across generations. In promoting the Think Family approach, Eisenstadt stresses the importance of cooperation and information sharing between services, which is critical in the current climate of reduced public spending.

While sole mothers tend to fare less well financially than couple families with or without children, time use research has found that sole mothers are not necessarily more time-poor than childless women living with a partner. Robert Goodin questions the logicality of basing such findings on actual time use and proposes a very different methodological thinking in his keynote paper. He argues that a distinction should be made between choice and necessity regarding how people use their time; in particular when measuring the amount of time spent in paid work. Without such a distinction, research on time use can reach misleading conclusions, as in the example finding above that sole mothers have as much spare time as childless women living with a partner.

With colleagues, Goodin developed and operationalised a concept of “discretionary time” that attempts to make such a distinction. Specifically, “necessary time” is what “people strictly need to spend” in activities such as work, and any leftover time is defined as “discretionary time”, over which people actually have some control (e.g., they may willingly choose to spend more time in paid work). He further defines necessary time in paid work as the amount of time that will get someone over the poverty line at their current wage rate. This new measure subsequently reveals that lone mothers have much less discretionary time than childless women in couple families. In other words, lone mothers are really worse off in terms of discretionary control over their time.

Some policies with the best intentions do not necessarily achieve their intended outcomes. Past adoption practices are an example of this. To right the wrong, the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs in 2009 commissioned the Australian Institute of Family Studies to review the research literature on past adoption practices in Australia and thus help services to better support affected individuals and families. The article by Daryl Higgins in this edition discusses the results of this research and provides an account of how societal attitudes influenced the practices—which reached a peak in the early 1970s—of having single mothers relinquish their children for adoption, often coerced and in secrecy. Higgins describes the ongoing trauma of separation that these mothers and children have endured ever since. Better policies and support provided to individuals and families affected can only be achieved with a good understanding of the long-term impacts on and needs of these individuals and families. Higgins emphasises the need for systematic research to inform policy-making and assist in the development of tailored service responses for those who have been affected.

Higgins demonstrates that societal attitudes play an important role in shaping social policy. The article by Anna Reimondos, Ann Evans and Edith Gray presents research on an emerging change in patterns of couple formation in Australia—“living apart together”—whereby some people choose to maintain their relationship with separate residences. While such relationships are by no means new, they have become increasingly visible and prevalent in some Western countries. The authors provide a typology of people in such relationships—the under-25s, young adults who were previously de facto, single parents, and previously married older people. The four groups are not only different according to their demographic profile, but also in their decisions about whether to live apart, and their future living arrangements. In particular, older couples were more likely than younger couples to choose to maintain separate residences. Understanding the meaning of such relationships and monitoring their presence among people at different stages of the life course not only helps in developing a good understanding of changes in patterns of couple relationship formation, but also sheds light on the support networks available to older people.

As the brief outline above shows, one of the running themes in the articles in this edition concerns improving the wellbeing of children in our society; in particular, reducing child poverty. Three articles, by Huston, Millar, and Eistentadt, devote their focus on this issue from different perspectives. Huston points out that child poverty has been a constant presence even in many wealth countries, including Australia. Indeed, the social database of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicates that about 12% of children across OECD countries live in poverty.2 The child poverty rate in Australia is similar to this average. Children in one-parent families (often sole mothers) are more likely than those in two-parent families to experience poverty. Not surprisingly, sole-parent families are one of the key groups to which policies have been directed, given their greater need for support compared with other types of families.

Paid employment is considered a key pathway for disadvantaged families (including many sole-parent families) to escape poverty, which policy-makers believe would lead to reduced child poverty and thus, in general, to improved child wellbeing. Nevertheless, Huston demonstrates that current social policies in the US have achieved limited success. Similarly, Millar’s study reveals that sole mothers’ financial position from paid work, while better than being on income support, remained stagnant and insecure. All three authors highlight the fact that families in poverty do not simply face material deprivation, but also tend to confront a range of issues in their lives, with some being the consequences of material deprivation. Thus, it is important to develop new frameworks for developing better and more effective social policy. Social policy research is at the forefront of providing the evidence base to help in this process.

Another issue to emerge in this edition is that of research methodology. Goodin’s discussion demonstrates the importance of research methodology in shaping research findings that may form the evidence base for policy-making. Similarly, Huston maintains that variation in the definition of poverty between Western countries can influence the policy direction on this issue. Reimondos and colleagues demonstrates the need to monitor social changes—in this case, non-residential couple relationship—that have implications for other areas of social policy development.

Social policy development is an ever-evolving process that is shaped by a range of factors, including economic conditions, social attitudes, balancing the needs of various social subgroups, the resolve of policy-makers and, importantly, research evidence and support. Increasing prosperity in Australia and other developed countries has not benefited all their citizens in the same way. As Eisenstadt points out, the issues that those who fall behind face are increasingly multi-faceted and, accordingly, social policies need to be more sophisticated. This cannot be achieved without the evidence base provided by social policy research. The publication of selected papers from the Institute’s 11th conference represents a continuing effort of the Institute to provide research evidence for social policy development and the broader social community.


1 Some sole mothers first parti cipated in the study in 2002, while others joined the study in 2003.

2 “Living in poverty” is defined as living in households with an equivalised income of less than 50% of the median.

Lixia Qu is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.