Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Get those sole parents working

Cross post

I'm inclined to see the National party's plan to work-test sole parents as a good thing. We've been told a number of times that National has comprehensive policies prepared, and that it will release them during the election campaign. We know it's not really a matter of money - after all, the policy will only save the government about $20million each year, so I'm guessing that the point of the policy is one about the value of working and supporting yourself and your dependents. I'm going to assume that given that the policy is about ideas rather than the money, National has some comprehensive policies that will need to be in place to make this particular policy work.

The detail (so far) of the policy - sole parents will be required to look for part-time work (15 hours a week) once their youngest child has turned six, and presumably is at school. The advantage of waiting until then is that this solves some of the childcare issues for sole parents.

So what is going to be required to make this happen? First up, there's going to have to be a number of employers who are prepared to offer 15 hours work a week, during school hours. There's no point in requiring sole parents to work 15 hours a week if no such jobs are available, so I'm assuming that National will be putting some sort of incentives in place to encourage the creation of such jobs.

Those jobs will need to be provided by employers who don't mind too much if a worker works say, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday one week, and different days the next, in order to look after sick children, or to attend events at school (parent teacher interviews, school sports days, all the usual commitments that come with having kids at school). So the work will need to be very flexible.

And the work will have to be just in term time. Kids do need to be supervised in school holidays, or otherwise, as Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony Helen so fetchingly puts it, they will end up building meth-labs in the back yard. It will probably take a bit of legislation or maybe incentives for employers to make this happen too, so that might be another dead rat that National needs to swallow, given that traditionally, they're all about "keeping government out of business" and "leaving people free to make their own decisions" and "cutting compliance costs for businesses."

Alternatively, if employers prepared to offer flexi work can't be found, then National will need to look at developing some serious out-of-school care services, and paying for them. At present it can be rather hard to find out-of-school care, and state schools are not required to provide it, so parents can be left struggling. Of course, state schools are not resourced to provide out of school care, and many of them don't have suitable spaces for it. Classrooms aren't available - they are teachers' working spaces, and contrary to popular belief, most, if not all, teachers are at school working before 8am each day, and there until 5pm in the evening. School halls often don't have toilet and kitchen facilities handy, and they are often too big to be heated easily. And even then, out-of-school care programs don't really work for teenagers, so you're into the meth-lab problem again.

You see, here's the critical thing about sole parents. They are, for whatever reason, sole parents. That means that they have no other back-up, they have no one else who can step up and help in an emergency. The other parent is, by definition, not there. And most times, family members aren't available to help either. They are busy working themselves. That means that if the state is going to require sole parents to work, then the state will need to ensure that conditions are such that sole parents can work.

I'm assuming that in order to make the work for the DPB policy effective, National has some comprehensive policies about the provision of childcare and out-of-school care too. I'm also assuming that they will be paying for them, because there's little or no point in forcing sole parents to get part time jobs, but then turning around and taking the income off them through high childcare fees.

I see this as a fantastic outcome of National's "work for the the DPB" plan. If the state gets serious about creating the conditions for flexi-work and providing good access to childcare, then all working parents will benefit. All working parents will be able to access good, low-cost childcare.

So I see the "work for the DPB" plan as a good one. It entails a whole lot of other family friendly policies too, and I'm delighted to think that the National party is prepared to put them in place.

Unless of course, the policy is all about bashing sole parents.


Nikki said...

Exceptionally brilliant post.

Thanks a billion Deborah.

*Rushes off to direct DPB bashing forum buddies to THM*

Alison said...

Thanks Deborah! I was struggling with mixed feelings about this policy - in theory, getting DPBeneficiaries into work is not a bad thing, but I hadn't been able to order all my thoughts about why it can't work as things stand. I look forward to seeing whether the Nats actually step up and put these support systems in place, or whether it's just a cynical use/abuse/misuse of the "welfare mum" stereotype to garner votes.

Anna McM said...

So true Deborah - this socialist paradise which the Nats are planning for us sounds very appealing... unless it's just about crapping on the least well off once more.

My workmates and I just had a robust debate over this very policy during morning tea. The only person who agreed with me was the sole male in the workplace!

artandmylife said...

Great post Deborah - excellent.

Anonymous said...

I just want to say that for a person making a choice between staying in an abusive, albeit financially secure, relationship and becoming a solo mum, this kind of policy does NOT help. Why are parents, and particularly solo parents (most often women) not better supported, not just financially but also socially instead of being 'bashed' even more

Nikki said...

Hrmmm... I must say that anonymous raises an excellent point about the Nat's policy. The woman that leaves a relationship when her child is 6 (or nearing 6) without a job, does she get forced on to the unemployment benefit because she no longer fits the criteria for the DPB?

weka said...

Great post!

I'd like to add that even if the intentions were good, it doesn't necessarily follow that sole parents are ready to take on 15 hours work a week once their youngest is five. Sole parents don't just do sole parenting, they do sole everything. So their workload in every area is at least double that of coupled families. Once the youngest is in school there are still all these other things needing attending to, on one's own, eg house repairs, car repairs, mending, shopping, cooking, cleaning, gardening etc etc

Unless you have an income to pay someone to do some of those other things eg paying someone to change the oil in your car instead of doing it yourself, then it's hard work living on your own. And people on the DPB don't have an adequate income to start with.

The long term DPB parents I know are all exhausted. Once their youngest gets to five I think they deserve some time to rest and figure out the best way to live their lives, not be pushed into crap, low paid work because people think that mothers should have two jobs.

The other issue here is that of abatement. Any beneficiary in receipt of Special Benefit or Temporary Additional Support (i.e. the people in most hardship) is going to lose dollar for dollar off their pay. That means that they are working for no extra income for that amount eg if they get $30 week on TAS/SB then they lose that for the first $30 they earn. That's 2 1/2 hours voluntary work on a minimum wage.

They also lose money off the rest of their benefit once their earnings reach $80 a week. That's 7 hours on a minimum wage before you start earning less than minimum wage.

Really appealing to women who are already undersupported and stressed and often poor.

alison said...

They also lose money off the rest of their benefit once their earnings reach $80 a week.

Weka, the Nats have said they'll raise that limit to $100. Not a big difference, but I guess it's a headnod to the fact that they'll have to make other changes and concessions if the policy is to work.

Julie said...


This post is so good I nearly didn't write anything myself, but then I figured I'd just get grumpy if I couldn't get my rant out ;-)

I was really struck by the lack of compassion in Key's speech. It's almost as if the man doesn't have an empathy gene.

Ari said...

One thing that really annoys me about this plan is that it essentially seems all stick and no carrot. There is little financial incentive to work part-time, and it doesn't seem to be loaded with exemptions for those who could not reasonably reach such a job. (say, rural parents)

If, as you generously assume, they'll be offering assistance with childcare, then this could go well with some other small tweaks. Personally, I'm disinclined to trust National to deal sensibly on matters of welfare.

I don't mind more incentives for beneficiaries to get into work, but I personally don't see how pulling the rug out from under them if they don't get into work within three weeks is going to help.

weka said...

Weka, the Nats have said they'll raise that limit to $100. Not a big difference, but I guess it's a headnod to the fact that they'll have to make other changes and concessions if the policy is to work.

Alison, sorry, but that is incredibly naive. The point of Deborah's post, and that of many others on this topic at the moment, is that National WON'T be doing what is needed to make such policies work. National have a very clear track record of treating beneficiaries badly. It makes no sense to assume that their intentions are for the wellbeing of sole parents or their children.

Idiot/Savant has just blogged that the policy seems more aimed at providing cheap labour to employers. I think the policy is also aimed at getting votes from people who think that beneficiaries are lazy.

As an aside, I haven't compared the Nat policy with current WINZ practice, but afaik there is already an expectation that those on the DPB will attend training or look for work once their youngest is in school. Has anyone looked at this?