8th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference
I’d like to thank my colleague Senator Vanstone for asking me to come here today in her place.
Thank you also to AIFS and Dr Sanson for welcoming me here.
Children and young people’s life course
I was interested to see that this conference is called “Steps forward for families”. I think it’s a very appropriate name. Not only is everyone here looking at how we can all take steps to help families out, we’re also watching the way that families themselves are stepping forward in the 21st century.
We hear a lot about how the shape of families is changing. With 32% of marriages estimated by the ABS as likely to end in divorce (ABS, “Lifetime marriage formation and marriage dissolution patterns in Australia”, Marriages and divorces Australia 2000, ABS, Canberra, 2001), many more children are living with only one parent, or with step parents and step siblings, than was previously the case.
While living with both parents is still the most common arrangement for children, the number of children in one parent families has been on the increase. For example between 1986 and 1996 the proportion of children in one-parent families rose from 11% to 16% (ABS, Children Australia: A social report 1999, cat. 4119.0, ABS, Canberra, 1999).
With falling fertility rates, it is interesting to note that over the next 20 years, couple families without children , are expected to become the most common of all family types (ABS, “Future living arrangements”, Australian Social Trends, cat. 4102, ABS, Canberra, 2001).
Another change is that young people are staying longer in the family home, delaying the independence traditionally shown by moving out (Kilmartin, C, ” Young adult moves: leaving home, returning home, relationships”, Family Matters, no.55, Autumn 2000, pp. 34-40.). Various reasons have been given for this: the longer time spent in education; women not leaving primarily to get married as in earlier generations; government policy determining whether young people receive income support based on parental income; the affordability of renting or buying their own home; and caring responsibilities (Weston, R; Stanton, D; Qu, L and Soriano, G, “Australian families in transition: some socio-demographic trends 1901-2001” Family matters, no. 60, Spring/Summer 2001, p. 13 and Hillman, K and Marks, G, Becoming an adult: Leaving home, relationships and home ownership among Australian youth, Australian Council for Educational Research, Camberwell, Victoria, 2002).
We need to be helping families out whatever their size or shape.
This is very close to my heart. Because the story of how families are doing is also, to a large degree, a story of how children are doing.
There are groups of children and young people who continue to experience significant barriers to healthy, productive lives. Failure to assist these children and young people costs the country dearly in economic and social terms: through failure to reach potential; through increased spending on health, education, income support, justice; and reduced social cohesion.
Family and Work
Senator Vanstone has just raised some important issues about work and family.
A big part of the story of families – and one that is very prominent at the moment – is people’s ability to manage their work and family responsibilities.
From my perspective as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I’d like to talk about these issues too.
Difficulty balancing work and family can bring marital problems and stress, not just for parents, but for children too.
This means that helping parents to negotiate their work and family responsibilities is also about giving children a better go in life.
We know that both men and women are saying they want to spend more time with their children. But sometimes their work commitments can prevent them from being able to do this.
From the children’s perspective, most families are doing well. Ellen Galinsky’s research in America found that children and young people are adaptable and recognise the value of their parents working, but wished their parents were less stressed and tired (Galinsky E, Ask the Children: What America’s Children Really Think About Working Parents, Morrow, New York, 1999).
An interesting point that Galinsky makes is that work and family is not like a see saw with one side up and the other down. Rather, there is a dynamic interrelationship between work and family, with the positive or negative aspects of one spilling over to the other. Parents are both parents and workers at the same time.
There is still room for improvement in the way we assist parents to balance work and family, and enable them to fulfil parallel commitments.
Women working has changed child bearing choices
More women are working and wanting to work. People are delaying childbearing and having fewer children. For the first time in 2001, the median age of mothers of newborn children reached 30 years and I’m sure you all know the current fertility rate is at an historic low of 1.73 babies per woman (ABS, Births Australia 2001, ABS, Canberra, 2001, cat. 3301.0).
Yet at the same time people still want to have children. There is a gap between the numbers of children people say they want to have and the numbers they actually have.
We know that there are many reasons for this, but a sense of security – in finances, in work, in relationships, and in wider society – is a big part of this story.
As you’d be aware, writers of letters to the editor or letters to government ministers represent a wide range of views. Even today, some of them would have the government do something to stop married women working. And there are also some who want to blame certain groups or accuse parents of being overly materialistic.
There is not one simple solution to increasing the fertility rate and there is no one group to blame. People want to work and they also want to have families. Our goal is about providing a range of support to allow families and individuals to make their own decisions.
I am a strong believer in the social coalition: in government, communities and business working together. For children, the social coalition includes teachers, child care workers, and child health professionals. In fact, I think the best solutions often come from the ground up, and they don’t always involve government funding.
Parents model a lifestyle to their children. If parents work, it gives children the opportunity to see the rewards that work can bring, both in material terms and in the personal satisfaction that comes from achievement and making a contribution.
From the point of view of the children, it really worries me that young people whose parents stay on social security for long periods, are more likely to end up on social security themselves.
Having working parents obviously helps children in a number of ways. But promoting family stability is also part of assisting workforce participation and improving the circumstances of children.
Relationship breakdown can increase the incidence of income support reliance and children growing up in jobless families.
Poverty has intergenerational impacts. The economic environment for children is usually determined by a parent’s income and assets (ABS, Children Australia: A social report 1999, cat. 4119.0, ABS, Canberra, 1999).
The ABS calculates that almost 18% of children under 15 years live in jobless families (ibid., p. 30); FaCS estimates that in June 2001,
845 000 children under the age of 25 were living in jobless families (FaCS, Work and family fact sheets, unpublished, FaCS, Canberra, 2002).
Most parents want to work, including those who are looking for a second family income. Senator Vanstone has already mentioned that there is a cost to earning a second wage. Part of the government’s approach to increased workforce participation is to assist with those costs, particularly if they include child care.
Increasing participation is important in a structurally ageing population. But at the same time as we want more people working, we also want people to feel able to start families and to spend time with their children.
We know from other countries that it is possible to have high levels of work force participation and high fertility, providing the right mix of policies are in place. The European communities are already looking at other ways they can support families rather than just through cash incentives to have children.
Investing in children’s well being and development
Many adult characteristics, both strengths and failings, have their roots in early childhood experiences. Investing in children early on will benefit both children and society.
Very soon I will be coordinating discussions about the priorities for inclusion in a national Early Childhood Agenda. I will be working closely with Commonwealth ministers in other portfolios, other levels of government, research organisations and key groups with an interest in early childhood.
The agenda will focus on:
- early child and maternal health
- early learning and care; and
- supporting child-friendly communities.
Both parents and children need child friendly and supportive communities around them. Social support can include child friendly environments, promotion of gender equity, marriage and relationship support, and the development of positive social attitudes towards children and parenting (McDonald P, “The ‘toolbox’ of public policies to impact on fertility – a global view”, Low fertility, families and public policies, Annual Seminar 2000 of the European Observatory on Family Matters, Sevilla (Spain), 15-16 September 2000).
Supporting young people
But let us not forget about young people.
My vision for young people recognises that most of them are out there working hard to build a positive future. They want to be a part of society and contribute to the future of this nation. They are law-abiding, responsible and deserve our admiration.
We currently have forums that give young people a say, promote their talents and highlight their achievements such as the National Youth Roundtable, the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Group, National Youth Week, Mentor Marketplace and the National Youth Media Awards.
We also continue to fund a variety of programs and services for young people, especially those delivered through community groups: the Reconnect program which assists homeless young people or those at risk of homelessness and their families; the Youth Activities Services and Family Liaison Workers; and Greencorps.
And of course, Youth Allowance and Transition to Independent Living Allowance assist young people to gain their independence.
Educating and caring for very young children
The Coalition Government is committed to supporting a quality child care system that is more responsive to families’ needs – whatever their situation or background.
Senator Vanstone has just mentioned the amount of funds this government has allocated to helping families access quality child care; $1.6 billion total Commonwealth expenditure on child care in the last financial year alone.
Child Care Benefit has made child care more affordable for more families. And we have also worked with child care providers to improve the quality of child care. This includes new quality assurance systems for long day care, outside school hours care and family day care.
The OECD’s 2001 thematic review of early childhood education and care, which included Australia, identified eight key policy elements that are likely to promote equitable access to quality child care (OECD, Starting Strong: Early Childhood Education and Care, OECD, Paris 2001). I’m pleased to say that Australia already encompasses most of these elements or is working towards them in its early childhood and child care services. We will be covering them again when we undertake our consultations for the early childhood agenda.
In 2001 the Government commissioned the Commonwealth Child Care Advisory Council discussion paper, Child Care: Beyond 2001. The paper offers a detailed and comprehensive vision for children’s services now and in the future. Parents, child carers and early childhood educators all want more from their child care.
Parents use formal child care to enable them enable to work, but they also need to know their children are being cared for in a quality environment. And, as the population ages, and we see a tighter labour market and more women in particular working, more children will be calling on child care for longer periods.
The Government’s current focus for addressing the child care aspects of structural ageing has been on four key areas: affordability, access, choice and quality. Each has a major bearing on current workforce participation. And of course, quality of child care has a significant impact on outcomes for children as well as being a high priority for parents.
There is now greater acknowledgment of the importance of the early years to outcomes for children and growing broad based support for improving early childhood outcomes across a range of disciplines. Additionally, a decrease in family size and the increased expectations of families are likely to put pressure on improving quality standards for child care.
There is a range of research producing conflicting theories about the desirability of large amounts of child care, particularly for young children. There is also debate on the quality of adult-child interactions at child care. The Government is closely monitoring the debate and will be examining this issue further.
Positive outcomes for ‘at risk’ children in particular are linked to quality child care and early childhood education.
For at risk children, we are also putting in place other cooperative initiatives with State and Territory governments that will improve the conditions for children and young people in foster care; set up better child abuse prevention strategies, particularly for indigenous communities; and improve child protection after notification of maltreatment.
The future workforce
I have outlined a number of ways we can support people in negotiating their work and family responsibilities, and still raise a happy and healthy next generation.
We need a dynamic, educated work force that is productive and competitive in a world context of less rapidly growing labour forces.
Supporting family resilience through capacity-building investments in early childhood development and youth can be the basis for greater independence in adulthood and a more productive future workforce.
Investing in children now is not only about valuing children but is also about economic development in the future. It is central to future work force productivity and social well being.
There is now compelling evidence of the importance of the early years of a child’s life in shaping lifelong outcomes. Early childhood experiences, along with other key experiences throughout children’s development, affect education, career prospects, health, reliance on welfare, substance misuse and becoming entangled with the criminal justice system.
Finally, I want to briefly outline what I mean when I say investing in children and families now is truly investing for the future.
- We need to keep focusing on the needs of children and young people;
- We have to invest early, especially in our children, to give them the best start in life;
- It’s important to take a national approach and work with others;
- We all share the responsibility for children; and
- This investment will increase people’s capacity to seize opportunities in work and community life.
Close and acknowledgements
In closing, I wish conference participants well and I’m sure from looking at the program there will be a lot of stimulating discussion and much that policy makers will be able to learn from you.