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Content type
Family Matters article

August 1993


In present economic times the capacity of many families to foster human development and growth is threatened by unemployment and a general move by governments to cut back on services and place more financial responsibility on families themselves.. In this economic environment of restructuring, cutbacks and public debt, the author asks some major questions concerning community expectations about services to families and raises concerns that some of the negative effects will be long and enduring. Issues addressed include: minimum adequate level of services to families, preventive services, the role of advocacy and support groups, and the longer term social costs of the loss of services.

Although they retain many strengths, families have been under considerable stress in recent decades from rapid social and economic change. At the best of times, and with adequate support, families help to promote, develop and maintain feelings of responsibility for others. They may also be the basis for concepts of a 'common good' beyond individual interests, on which the wellbeing of society depends.

Since its inception, the Institute has argued strongly that families have never been expected to 'do it alone', and in a complex modern society, it is especially unrealistic to expect them to do all that is demanded of them without assistance (Edgar 1990).

At present, the capacity of many families to foster human development and growth is threatened by unemployment and a general move to cut back on services and place more financial responsibility on families themselves. Unemployment increases poverty, curtails the productive lives of adults, shuts young people out of pathways to economic independence and threatens the development and opportunities of thousands of children. We have yet to see the full effect on families of some aspects of economic restructuring in the 1980s and 1990s such as changes in work patterns, casualisation of employment, and job loss from the middle of the earnings distribution.

The situation for some families is being compounded by cutbacks in most States as a response to public debt. In Victoria, for example, hundreds of individual cuts have been made, from millions of dollars in education and transport to amounts of less than $20,000 from the budgets of community groups. Many services have been affected - tenancy groups, English as a second language programs in schools, poverty action groups, rail services, dispute settling centres, community health services, community child care, and services used by the aged - as well as a number of bodies which previously advised on policy development in areas which affected families. Other States have seen similar cuts, if perhaps not spread so widely.

Given the state of the economy, some changes are inevitable and close scrutiny of existing services is understandable. However, the general policy and program directions taken raise some major questions concerning community expectations about services to families, and concerns that some of the negative effects will be long term and enduring. Several of the issues are discussed here.

What is a minimum adequate level of services to families?

There is no simple answer to this complex question, but it is one which needs to be kept to the forefront when decisions are being made about reducing and reallocating services to families.

We need to be aware of the overall effect of cuts across a range of areas. Research has traced the cumulative effect of stress on families. McCaughey (1992) found that eviction and homelessness was typically the result of a build up of factors, and a relatively simple occurrence could tip the balance. Taken alone, the loss of a service may have a minimal effect overall (although even the closure of one small local school or one day hospital is significant in the lives of the families involved). Taken together, the effect is likely to be much greater, and likely to fall heavily on those families least able to cope. Accumulated stress and lack of support contributes to the breakdown of relationships, to violence and abuse, with all that that implies for parents and children.

What is the role of preventive services in the range of provision for families?

It is widely agreed that preventing negative outcomes for families and individuals is much better (more efficient, more effective and almost certainly less costly) than remedial services after a situation has reached crisis point. In general, however, our approaches to effective 'prevention' policies are less than adequate. What constitutes prevention, and the points at which intervention is appropriate, are complex issues but there is an abundance of research on families which offers suggestions for avoiding crises.

A recent report raises some important questions about current notions of prevention and illustrates some basic dilemmas about one area of family services - that of respite care in Victoria (Cavanagh and Owen 1993). Respite care is available to assist families with a member who is intellectually disabled or elderly. Until recently, it was also available generally for children and young people whose family faced a crisis. However, Cavanagh and Owen report that, now, families presenting with other than intellectual or physical disabilities as their 'special need' are less likely to receive a temporary or respite care service.

The problem is compounded by increased demands from statutory protective workers for temporary care for children and young people, as they seek to implement the principles of the Victorian Children and Young Person's Act (1989). The Act is based on the belief that families should be preserved, and that court action and the removal of children to out-of-home placements should be avoided, if at all possible.

The result of funding cuts and increased demand is that families under stress are often not able to get a form of support which would enable them to avoid real crisis. The report concludes with a key question concerning the level of family services and preventive policies: are families whose needs relate to stress and family dysfunction rather than a medical, physical or intellectual disability, entitled to respite care services to prevent family breakdown? Or, the report asks, 'Will they need to wait until breakdown occurs, children are removed and placed in out-of-home care, and respite care is made available to re-unite families and enable them to care for their dependent members?' (p.14).

What should be the role of advocacy and support groups in an adequate level of services to families?

Advocacy groups are often seen as a target for savings, partly because their budgets are relatively small. However, they can play a vital part in supporting families. Community based advocacy and advisory services are often 'user-friendly' in that they are not bureaucratic or threatening; they are responsive to the people who use them, in touch with emerging issues, and able to promote particular issues to the broader community. McCaughey (1992) found that 'on the ground' non-government agencies are better equipped than large bureaucratic structures to deal with vulnerable families. In the past, such agencies and services have played a strong role in the development of new and more effective policies and programs for families, and for groups whose needs and interests have previously been neglected. The demise or curtailment of these services is likely to leave some families with less support than before. Again, research on homeless families shows the importance of a range of support services for families and indicates that more, rather than less, support is needed in times of economic hardship.

Agencies have to be accountable for the public money they receive, and the community needs to be assured that some real needs are being met by their existence. Nevertheless, current moves towards greater quantification in evaluation and tighter restrictions in the way they are assessed are not always appropriate. Agencies may be very cost-efficient, meeting the needs of many people yet operating on a small budget for paid staff and relying on additional voluntary help. In the circumstances, further 'efficiency cuts' are generally unrealistic. There is also the argument that advocacy creates efficiency by reducing information queues at government offices.

Longer-term social costs

The loss of some services, and reduction in others will almost certainly result in more parents under stress, and more children at risk. There are questions also about the quality of services available when demand is great and resources have to be stretched. As well as effects on individuals and families, ultimately there are likely to be wider social costs, both monetary and non-monetary.

The adverse social outcomes of unemployment include high levels of debt, homelessness and insecurity, family breakdown, boredom and alienation (Dixon 1992). The social costs of youth homelessness include loss of opportunities to participate and contribute to society, restricted educational opportunities, health problems which may last a lifetime, and alienation (Hartley 1993). Cynicism and uncertainty become more common, and society as a whole is diminished when a significant minority loses faith in its structures and values.

Such broader social costs need to be kept well to the forefront of planning and decision making. Reductions in program expenditure do not represent savings if they result in larger costs elsewhere - in greater calls on crisis, material aid, and health services, in family breakdown, and youth and family homelessness.


  • Cavanagh, J. and Owen, J. (1993), Policy, Practice and Funding Dilemmas for Respite Care Services, Inner Urban Temporary Care Research Project. Summary report.
  • Dixon, D. (1992), Unemployment: The Economic and Social Costs, Brotherhood of St Laurence, Melbourne.
  • Edgar, D. (1990), 'A decade of family research - and the next?', Family Matters, No.26, April, pp.2-11.
  • Hartley, R. (in press), 'The social costs of youth homelessness', In Sykes, H. (ed), Youth Homelessness: Courage and Hope, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
  • McCaughey, J. (1992), 'Where Now? Homeless Families in the 1990s', Policy Background Paper No.8, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.