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Family Matters article

April 1994


The circumstances and needs of disadvantaged families are a priority issue for the International Year of the Family. The source of disadvantage identified by the National Council for the International Year of the Family include unemployment, working families with low incomes, non English speaking background, sole parenthood, Aboriginality, disability or chronic illness and locational disadvantage. This paper is the first of four articles in this issue of 'Family Matters' which focus on disadvantaged families. The author examines families with an unemployed member (especially where the head is unemployed), low paid families, sole parent families and families from non English speaking backgrounds. She argues that it is critical that IYF encourages a far more equitable sharing of the necessary short-term costs of helping family members obtain employment and of supporting families. 'Australians must be prepared to pay the levels of taxation that will enable us to take the decisive action to reduce unemployment while not reducing services to disadvantaged families. Over the past years the relatively low levels of taxation have declined further to historically low levels, and Australia has dropped to being the lowest taxed country of the OECD. At a time of high need and high unemployment for many, and affluence for others, this is neither economically nor socially responsible'.

The circumstances and needs of disadvantaged families are rightly a priority issue for the International Year of the Family.The past 20 years have seen profound economic and social changes which have placed many families under severe economic and emotional stress and contributed to an increase in poverty and inequality amongst families.

This paper focuses on families with an unemployed member (especially where the head is unemployed), low-paid families, sole- parent families, and families from non- English-speaking backgrounds.


The situation of economically disadvantaged families needs to be placed in the context of a trend to greater inequality of family incomes in Australia over the 1980s and possibly in the 1970s (Saunders 1992). This is mainly due to more widespread unemployment than previously and greater inequality in wages - seen especially in the greater variations in the earnings of husbands - s well as greater differences in unearned income.

The types of families who gained most during the 1980s were high- income families and couples under 65 years with no dependent children, as well as some with children. The families who lost included couples with children as well as sole-parent families (Saunders 1992, 1993; Harding 1993a).

There was increasing polarisation of family incomes (Harding 1993b), with the proportion of Australians living in families with incomes in the middle of the family income distribution declining by 1.5 per cent in the 1980s, and the proportion living in families which received more than one and three-quarter times the middle family income growing by 1.5 per cent.

Increasing inequality does not necessarily mean increased poverty and disadvantage. For example, it can mean that high-income families gain at the expense of middle-income families with the position of low-income families not worsening. However, research using the Henderson Poverty Line does indicate increasing poverty during the 1980s. Saunders (1993) found an increase in before- and after- housing poverty between 1981-82 and 1989-90. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (1993) also found an increase in poverty. This followed a significant increase in family poverty during the 1970s (Gallagher 1985). Another study, departing from the Henderson Poverty Line and using a median income approach and a different income definition, found some decline in poverty over the 1980s due to the operation of the tax transfer system (Harding and Mitchell 1992).

While there has been criticism of the Henderson Poverty Line, research demonstrates the hardship experienced by families on incomes below the poverty line (Trethewey 1989), and very different research at different times has pointed to the validity of the 120 per cent benchmark as a threshold of relative disadvantage (Brownlee and McDonald 1993; Smith 1982).

Poverty and inequality data from 1989-90 probably underestimate the present extent of poverty and inequality in Australia and the extent of disadvantage faced by many Australian families on low incomes. This is because of the substantial increase in unemployment from 6 per cent in late 1989 to over 11 per cent in 1993. Saunders (1993) indicated there may have been a significant increase in inequality in Australia in the period 1989-90 to 1991-92 due to the increase in unemployment. Increasing poverty also may be gauged by the substantial increase in the number of families and children in receipt of Department of Social Security pensions and allowances - from 727,800 in late 1989 to over 949,000 in December 1992 (Gilley 1993). Another indicator may be the significant increase in requests for emergency relief reported by welfare agencies since the onset of the recession: Mitchell (1992) commented that 'the demands for help on most of the major welfare agencies has more than doubled since the beginning of the recession.'


'All these years we've given our kids everything they've wanted. All of a sudden we felt like an insect that was going to get walked on. He hit the bottle. We fought, the kids got upset. I walked out with a black eye.' Female, Melbourne ' experience of unemployment of breadwinner (Jackson and Crooks 1993)

Many families have been hard hit by unemployment - at least 80 per cent of unemployed people are members of a family. Cass (1993a) states that 'almost 50 per cent of unemployed people would be the family breadwinner if they were not unemployed and a further 30 per cent would have contributed to family income'(p.3). There are 500,000 children dependent on an unemployed parent with more than 200,000 children dependent on a parent who is long- term unemployed (Committee on Employment Opportunities 1993).

Unemployment and joblessness tend to be concentrated within families. In particular, the large increase in employment of married females during the 1980s was not evenly spread across households. Those wives who have a spouse who is unemployed or not in the labour market have been much less likely to increase their labour force participation than wives who have an employed spouse. The wives of unemployed men are nine times more likely to be unemployed than the wives of employed men (Cass 1993b).

This point is illustrated by some of the findings of the Life Chances Study - a longitudinal research project by the Brotherhood of St Laurence - that examines the family situations and the development of 167 children who were born in inner-urban Melbourne around 1990. The employment situation of the children's parents was checked six months following the child's birth, and again at 18 months after the birth. The salient findings confirmed the Australia-wide trends - the wives of unemployed men in the study were more likely not to be in paid employment than the wives of employed men. Mothers who were parenting alone with young children were also likely to be unemployed or jobless. The mothers who increased their workforce participation during the 18 months following the birth of their child generally had partners who were also employed, and they were likely to be in families with high incomes.

Mirroring an Australia-wide trend, there were increasing numbers of families with no parents in the workforce and more families with both parents in the workforce. There was also little movement out of unemployment for the families, and low-income families were likely to be losing employment rather than gaining it. As family welfare has come to be increasingly reliant on women's earnings (Committee on Employment Opportunities 1993), the reduced capacity of families with an unemployed male breadwinner to be able to take advantage of this is a matter of considerable concern.

Many families with older children and an unemployed or low-paid breadwinner experience additional financial stress and family conflict because teenage and young adult offspring are still financially dependent, either because they are unemployed (disproportionately concentrated amongst vulnerable families), or because they are having to stay on at school. The full-time labour market for teenagers is collapsing, and if they happen to find full-time employment it is likely to be at low rates of pay (McDonald 1992). The impact on families has been exacerbated by increased difficulties experienced by young people in obtaining affordable housing, and there has been an increase in the proportion of young adults who are staying in the family home (McDonald 1990). In other families, the strain of low family income and prolonged teenage dependency has contributed to youth homelessness (Thomson 1993).

The personal and social impacts of unemployment in families include poverty and financial hardship, debt, homelessness or housing stress, family tensions and breakdown, boredom, alienation, shame and stigma, increased isolation, crime, erosion of confidence and self- esteem, the atrophy of work skills, and ill health.The Life Chances Study found that in families where there was no employed parent, mothers reportedpoorer health of their young children, serious health problems for themselves,serious disagreements with a partner, serious financial problems, andserious problems with housing, more often than mothers in families who had an employed parent (Gilley 1993).

In addition to these immediate impacts, long-term unemployment or joblessness of family breadwinners puts at risk the futures of the large numbers of children affected. Many of these children will experience long periods of financial deprivation. For many, educational progress will suffer and their own employment prospects will reduce. An intergenerational dynamic is thus created. The educationally disadvantaged children of the currently unemployed will themselves be disadvantaged on entering the labour force.


'Our baby will need more than we can afford. We will not be able to provide her with the things she needs.' (Couple with husband in low paid job (Gilley 1993)

Full-time employment of at least one parent has been long recognised as a critical factor in reducing the risk of family poverty. However, recent labour market trends pose the danger of large numbers of families being reliant on the earnings of low-waged members. The first of three key trends is the decline in average male and female earnings in real terms between 1983 to 1990 (Saunders 1993).

Second, there has been a growth in part-time and casual work as a proportion of all employment and a decline in the proportion of both males and females working full-time since 1979. This was a factor in the decline in male and female real earnings over 1983-90. Much of the increase in part- time work has been in casual work (Romeyn 1992) which is characterised by a lack of security, limited access to award benefits and superannuation and limited training opportunities and career paths. While part-time work suits the preferences of many, during the recent recession it has been accompanied by an increase in underemployment, with more than half a million part-time workers, or 30 per cent of all part-time workers, wanting to work more hours (ABS 1993a).

Third, there has been a trend to greater inequality in the wages of both men and women in full-time employment (Harding 1993a; Gregory 1993). As stated by the Committee on Employment Opportunities (1993):

The share of jobs which are low paid has been increasing especially for men. Since 1976, over 70 per cent of all new jobs have been in the bottom 25 per cent of the male full-time weekly earnings distribution . . . These changes have taken place alongside a fall in earnings, in real terms, of low-paid workers, possibly reflecting the greater competition for jobs. This trend has been apparent since 1985 and is most pronounced for low-paid men. (pp.38- 39)

However, women are still more likely than men to be disproportionately concentrated in the lower decile of incomes. Although the wage gap between men and women has declined over the past decade, average weekly earnings of full-time employed women are still only 83 per cent of those of full-time men, and around two-thirds of male earnings when all wage and salary earnings are compared (OSW 1993).

There are no accurate data on the numbers of low-paid families. The Brotherhood of St Laurence's Life Chances Study found that there was a small group of families (17 per cent) who had a parent in the paid workforce but were still on incomes below or near the poverty line. The major issue here was not low wages associated with part-time work, but low-paid, full-time employment of the male breadwinner. Most of the full- time paid jobs of the families in this study provided a weekly wage between $270 and $350 per week. There was a range of occupations, but most were in manufacturing (Gilley 1993).

The financial situation of low-wage families with children would have been improved during the 1980s with the introduction of the Family Income Supplement (later named the Family Allowance Supplement and then Additional Family Payment). Low-income families with children who were renting privately also became eligible for Rent Assistance and for a limited range of government concessions. On the other hand, the standard of living of many low-wage families was strained further by increases in the cost of housing in the 1980s as well as by more recent increases in the price of services, utilities and transport, and reductions in services in some states.

Home ownership has become increasingly out of reach of low- wage and single-income families. While recent lower prices and interest rates have made purchasing a house much easier than in the 1980s, affordability remains a major problem compared with earlier decades. Rental prices also increased during the 1980s (although the dramatic increases appear to have been reversed) and waiting lists for public housing across Australia soared from 110,204 in 1981-82 to 212,000 households by June 1992 (McClelland 1993; Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 1993).


'There's so many things you could do for your children but you can't. They aren't secure. I'll probably be moving every six months; it's going to be extremely hard. Being a sole parent, it's very difficult to find a house.' Sole parent with two children under six years of age in private rental accommodation (Brotherhood of St Laurence Life Chances Study data: forthcoming)

The number of sole-parent families doubled between 1966-1986, with the largest increase occurring between 1976 and 1981. In most cases sole- parent households are formed as a result of separation, divorce, or the death of a spouse and they are predominantly female-headed.

Study after study consistently finds that sole-parent families have the highest incidence of family poverty in Australia. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (1993) found that 44 per cent of sole parents were in after- housing poverty in 1989-90 compared with 13.8 per cent of two- parent families and 6.9 per cent of couples with no children where the head was aged less than 65 years.

There are several reasons for the high incidence of poverty of sole-parent families. First, the proportion of sole-parent families not in paid employment is substantially higher than the proportion of two-parent families where neither parent is in paid employment. This has been caused by economic change and high unemployment generally, as well as by the significant labour market disadvantage of many sole parents who have to combine work with rearing children alone.

A second reason for the poverty of sole-parent families is the low level of child support payments, which are insufficient to offset the financial disadvantage which custodial parents are likely to suffer on separation. A third reason is the cost of housing: sole parents are more likely than other families to experience difficulties in obtaining affordable housing and to be paying more that 25 per cent of their income on housing. And finally, there is the relatively high reliance on government income support payments, the levels of which are often below the Henderson Poverty Line.

During the 1980s three initiatives to improve the position of sole- parent families were introduced:the Child Support Scheme, which introduced the collection of maintenance by the Child Support Agency and applies a formula to determine the level of child maintenance for parents who separated after the commencement of the Scheme;increases to the levels of payments applying to children of pensioners and allowees and low-wage families, and to the level of rent assistance to families; and JET, a jobs, education and training program aimed at improving the employment prospects of sole-parent pensioners.

These were important initiatives and have been accompanied by an increase in the number of sole-parent pensioners who are in paid employment and by some increase in maintenance payments (Shaver 1993).

However many sole parents are still extremely disadvantaged. In June 1990, 60 per cent of sole-parent pensioners received no child support and 77 per cent received no income from employment. The value of the Guardians Allowance, the specific payment applicable to sole parents which partially recognises the additional costs of sole parenthood, has not been increased in real terms since May 1986 and its value has declined from 9.3 per cent of the married pension rate when introduced in 1978 to 5.5 per cent in 1993 (ACOSS 1993).


'My husband lost his job. There's no jobs around. You don't have enough money to spend. It's not like we can save money to buy things for our son that he will need in the future.' Unemployed couple with one child from non- English- speaking background (Brotherhood of St Laurence Life Chances Study data: forthcoming)

In 1991 there were 2.2 million people in Australia from non- English- speaking birthplaces with large groups from Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Vietnam, Germany, Netherlands and China (ABS 1993b).The situation of families from non-English-speaking backgrounds is diverse and differs according to country of origin, length of residence, English language skills and other factors. However, many of these families are economically disadvantaged and face additional difficulties of communication, lack of contact with close friends and relatives, and cultural alienation.

Some face considerable labour force disadvantage, particularly families from Indo-China and the Middle East (Cass 1993a). This is reflected in higher rates of unemployment and long-term unemployment. People from Vietnam and Lebanon are particularly affected by unemployment, and in May 1993 their unemployment rates were 30.5 per cent and 33.6 per cent respectively. People from Indo-China and South America also have high unemployment rates (Moss 1993). People from non-English- speaking backgrounds are also over-represented in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. For example, the Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner (Moss 1993) recently reported that 'Women from the traditional non- English-speaking southern European source countries and the more recently arrived immigrant women from Turkey and Vietnam were five times more likely to be in unskilled jobs' than other women (p.260).

The report identified a number of factors that contribute to the relatively poor labour market positions of people from non-English- speaking backgrounds. They include:structural change which has particularly affected the industries in which migrants have traditionally found employment;industrial segregation in their employment;limited training opportunities;limited opportunities for re-employment of older immigrant workers; andsome systemic discrimination.Other contributing factors include communication difficulties and the lack of recognition of the needs of women with English language and literacy difficulties (Committee on Employment Opportunities 1993; MacDonald 1993).

It is therefore not surprising that the available data indicate that families from non-English-speaking backgrounds experience relatively high rates of poverty. While national statistics do not readily allow calculation of the poverty of these families, there are indicators of their poverty status.

First, an analysis of the 1989 Victorian social survey indicated that while at least 18.7 per cent of all Victorian children were below the Henderson Poverty Line, at least 22.4 per cent of all children in families from non- English- speaking backgrounds were living below the Poverty Line, with children from Lebanese and Vietnamese backgrounds most likely to be in families with low income (Taylor and MacDonald 1992).

Second, in 1991 there was an over-representation of children in non- English-speaking families amongst those receiving a sickness benefit, special benefit, invalid pension and unemployment benefit (with an under- representation amongst those receiving family allowance supplement and sole-parent pension) (Taylor and MacDonald 1992).

Third, data from the Brunswick Longitudinal study and the AIFS Australian Living Standards Study point to an over- representation of families from non-English-speaking backgrounds on low incomes (Smith and Carmichael 1992; Brownlee and McDonald 1993).

In addition, many families from non-English-speaking backgrounds face problems of distance from their relatives and difficulties in accessing services. For example, the Life Chances Study found that the disadvantages include the comparative lack of support for mothers and young babies. 'They were less likely to have had help from grandparents, less likely have had friends to turn to for advice, less likely to be receiving any help with the baby, than were other mothers. They also made less use of some services, being less likely to have attended an obstetrician, pre-natal classes, a birthing centre, or a paediatrician, or to have had contact with the Nursing Mothers Association' (Taylor and MacDonald 1992, p.xiii).

Moss (1993) also mentions difficulties in accessing English language classes and culturally appropriate services for older immigrants, as well as the special problems faced by refugees and asylum seekers.


The problems encountered by economically disadvantaged families and the consequences of widespread unemployment and poverty can have a profoundly corrosive effect on the dignity and self-worth of those affected. Family members who are excluded from participation in the customary activities of our communities can be isolated and marginalised, often confronting uncertain futures.

There are also significant social costs which threaten Australia's social fabric, with increased social dislocation and division and social problems such as marital tension, crime and ill health. Society's economic strength and stability is undermined when a large proportion of human capital is under-developed and wasted.

The most compelling priority for action in the International Year of the Family is to reduce the high rate of unemployment facing families, especially as this Family Year coincides with the possibility of decisive action against unemployment for the first time in a decade. With the Economic Summit in 1983, the incoming Labor Government committed itself to tackling unemployment. In 1994, with a White Paper on Employment, the Federal Government has made a renewed commitment to reducing unemployment and it has been presented with a number of important proposals from the Committee of Employment Opportunities (1993). These must be implemented and expanded upon.

The Committee's report acknowledges the importance of economic growth as a foundation for reducing unemployment, but also acknowledges that economic growth must be accompanied by increased and more effective assistance to unemployed people, particularly the long-term unemployed, in order to reduce unemployment to 5 per cent by the end of the century.

The report also contains proposals for a substantial change to social security payments to unemployed and low-wage families. These include an easing of the income test for unemployment allowances, the introduction of a separate Partners Allowance for the spouses of unemployed people, and the introduction of a Parenting Allowance paid to unemployed couples with children or to low-wage families with dependent children.

If properly implemented, these reforms have the potential to recognise the contribution that the wives of unemployed men can make to improving the employment outcomes of families where the breadwinner is unemployed. The reforms offer parents in very low- income families the realistic option of reducing their workforce participation to care for dependent children. They recognise, too, the substantial barriers existing in present income- test arrangements to the take-up of part-time work by members of unemployed families.

On the other hand, if not properly designed, funded and implemented, these reforms, and the labour market reforms contained in the Committee's report, also have the potential to cause harm and to be relatively ineffective in reducing unemployment The Committee estimated that an additional amount of almost $2 billion was required to implement their reforms properly. The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS 1994) and the Brotherhood of St Laurence (1994) have further concluded that this amount is inadequate and needs to be increased.

Reducing unemployment will not necessarily improve the position of families with low-paid workers. The drive for labour market flexibility and the internationalisation of the labour market will place great pressure on the wages of low- paid workers in the future. Wage determination practices and the industrial relations system must continue to be cognisant of the need for adequate wages, as well as of the need to improve access to training (including literacy classes) for low-paid workers and people from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

It is also important that changes to the tax-transfer system give priority to protecting the living standards of disadvantaged families. Government tax and transfers have a key role in moderating the trend to family inequality. This would not be achieved through the introduction of income splitting, which would give most tax relief to higher-income families. The position of low-wage, single-income families will be best improved through a raising of low tax thresholds and through targeted payments such as the proposed Partner's Allowance and increases to Additional Family Payment, the level of which is still below conservative estimates of the costs of children. Further action needs to be taken to improve the accessibility of child-related payments to low-paid families from non- English-speaking backgrounds, where there may be still a relatively low take- up (ACOSS 1993; Taylor and MacDonald 1992).

High priority should also be given to improving the incomes of sole parents. They will be assisted by many of the proposals covered so far but, in addition, the administration of the Child Support Scheme needs to be improved. Parents who separated prior to the introduction of the Scheme should be able to become part of the Scheme and thus obtain access to the higher maintenance payments it provides. Special attention should be given to those sole- parent families with little or no income from maintenance or work through a targeted increase to the Guardians Allowance.

Improved access to adequate, affordable housing requires a substantial expansion of social housing; targeted and recoupable assistance to low- income, first-home buyers; and increased levels of rent assistance to low- income families in private rental accommodation.

Finally, we need to recognise that reductions in expenditure on education, public transport and community services have often been translated into reduced access to services and can have a particular impact on the future and current living standards of low- income Australian families. We need to re-assert the importance of supporting families in communities by ensuring decent access to high quality and affordable services.

It is critical that IYF encourages a far more equitable sharing of the necessary short-term costs of helping family members obtain employment and of supporting families. Australians must be prepared to pay the levels of taxation that will enable us to take the decisive action to reduce unemployment while not reducing services to disadvantaged families. Over the past years the relatively low levels of taxation have declined further to historically low levels, and Australia has dropped to being the lowest taxed country of the OECD. At a time of high need and high unemployment for many, and affluence for others, this is neither economically nor socially responsible.


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