As we’re just a couple of days out from the federal election, it seems fitting that it coincides with National Families Week and UN International Day of Families.
This week recognises the vital role that families play in our society, our workplaces, our communities and our economy. It’s a week that’s intended to remind us of the critical and systemic challenges families are facing in our nation and across the world.
As I reflect on the state of families in Australia and what many have endured over the past two years through a pandemic that we’re still very much clawing ourselves out of, I see the incredible resilience, generosity and sheer determination to survive whatever has been thrown at them.
It has been extraordinary.
But the toll this has taken on families continues to unfold, and we’re yet to fully comprehend the medium to long term outcomes on education, health and development, workforce participation and gender equality across our communities and workplaces.
Whatever the outcome this coming weekend, one thing is for certain: Australia’s 47th Parliament will be on notice to invest in the caring economy and to deliver better outcomes for families, women and children.
During the pandemic we saw seismic shifts in how we live and work. While there have been benefits and gains for some, such as improved flexible work arrangements, that hasn’t been the case for all families.
Life has become harder for some families, even less predictable, more precarious, and more costly.
Nearly one million Australians are living in severe income poverty, defined as having access to per capita equivalent income below 30 per cent of the national median, according to a March 2022 report released by the BankWest Curtin Economic Centre. Among the 750,000 children who are living in families below the income poverty line, over 190,000 are experiencing severe poverty.
For children living in poverty or with prolonged financial insecurity, the adverse developmental impacts and effects on future life outcomes can be deep, severe and devasting.
Poverty and families
A family with parents seeking employment cannot live off jobseeker payments of $45 a day.
We saw what was possible in better supporting families, during the pandemic.
We saw the rollout of improved Jobseeker and Jobkeeper payments, combined with free access to subsidised childcare and rent relief, policy shifts that helped to temporarily improve Australia’s persistently growing poverty situation.
The Australian Council of Social Services CEO Dr. Cassandra Goldie recently stated that: “The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that poverty and inequality are not an inevitable state of being. They grow because government policies allow them to, and in many cases, directly increase them.”
‘’The income supports introduced during the first COVID wave reduced poverty by half and greatly reduced inequality of income. We also showed that good social policy, tackling poverty, is good economics. By targeting income support to those with the least, the vital help was rapidly spent on essentials, helping to keep others in jobs…We now know what governments are capable of when they set their minds to it.”
The caring economy
One of the most profound outcomes of the pandemic has been felt across our ‘caring economy’. Many Australians now believe caring roles are vital, and view them as essential services needed for our society and economy to function.
Arguably, Covid has reminded us that ‘caring’ is at the heart of our economy. And, if caring is at the heart of our economy, then it is everyone’s business – a point made by Sam Mostyn, President of Chief Executive Women in an address to the National Press Club early this year.
For too long, the roles of ‘paid and unpaid caring’ have not been seen as an economic or business imperative. ‘Caring’ has been fundamentally under-valued, under-invested in and under-estimated when it comes to how much it contributes to the very fabric of our society. Adequately rebuilding and investing in our caring economy will be one of the greatest challenges in our next term of government.
Bridging the caring divide involves government, employers, community services and families working together to build improved caring policies that deliver fairer and more sustainable work and family outcomes – the health and wellbeing of Australian families – and our economy depends on it.
We know that both paid and unpaid caring roles are disproportionately performed by women. The ripple effect this has on workforce participation, gender equality, and financial and health outcomes are both pervasive and disturbing. Not only for women, but for the health and development of the next generation, our children. They deserve better.
In February 2021, the ABS reported close to 140,000 Australians wanted paid employment but didn’t look for it because they couldn’t find suitable childcare. Over 90 per cent of these were women. Another 64,700 people wanted to work but didn’t look for it because of family considerations or caring responsibilities.
The general sentiment in Australia is that you must be ‘lucky’ to be employed with an organisation that offers good work and family policy benefits. The divide between those have access to these ‘family-friendly employers’ and those who don’t is widening every year.
So what do we need from this new Parliament?
- A progressive National Work + Family Policy Framework. We urgently need Government to take the lead working with businesses, unions and community groups to set a new vision for how we design, fund and embrace family-friendly policies as a nation.
- Universal access to affordable, quality early childhood education
- A stronger roadmap for greater investment in paid parental leave (PPL). Australia is significantly less invested in PPL when compared to the OECD average, where parents can access individual paid leave entitlements, plus leave to share between them in excess of 53 weeks. Compared to other OECD countries, ’Australia’s public expenditure on PPL is much less – lower than half the OECD average of US $12,000 per live birth.
- Guarantees that workers employed in our caring economy are adequately paid and have access to secure employment. Some of the lowest paid workers are employed in the caring sectors and invariably these are roles are performed by women who are the most impacted
- Relief from cost of living pressures for families, greater flexibility to meet their work and care commitments, and better access to affordable housing and preventative measures for preventing family and domestic violence.
This weekend, amidst the election hype, let’s not forget to put the welfare of Australian children and the most vulnerable in our communities at the heart of the caring debate and ensure their voices are represented, heard and respected by our political leaders.