Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin got into trouble for telling a persistent journalist that, yes, she could live on the dole. But, she went on to say, the dole was not intended as a permanent payment; the government did all it could to get people into work. The second part of her statement was mostly not reported. And we wonder why ministers evade questions and employ spin doctors.
The hoo-ha over the minister saying she could live on the dole (for which she has apologised) did have a beneficial effect for her. It diverted attention from the government decision that had sparked interest in how much the dole paid: the putting of single parents on the dole when their youngest child reached eight. This will reduce their income substantially from what they received under the single-parenting benefit.
The mothers are given to junk food, daytime TV and no-good boyfriends, who might develop designs on an adolescent daughter.
That decision was criticised as cruel cost-saving at the expense of the poorest in the community. It would be unconscionable if that were the government's only purpose. The larger purpose is to improve the wellbeing of these households by persuading the single parent to take work and not rely wholly on welfare.
We can envisage a single parent running a good household in which their children flourish. If all single parents were like this, leaving them on the more generous parenting allowance would be good policy. A single parent who has to take work to survive will have a more complicated life, juggling home and work without the assistance of a partner.
But many single-parent households are not good places for children. The mothers are given to junk food, daytime TV and no-good boyfriends, who might develop designs on an adolescent daughter. The worst mothers are addicted to drugs and alcohol and under their influence neglect and abuse their children. Pru Goward, the New South Wales Family and Community Services minister, reported recently on cases in which babies had to be removed from their mother at birth to ensure they survived.
The number of reports of child abuse has grown enormously.
It is not often realised that these do not represent a wider spread of abuse. The same hardcore abusers are being reported again and again. Welfare is the economic underpinning of the regular abuse of children.
It will be a difficult task to get such parents out of the home and into work. The government is aware of this and has plans to assist them. The benefits to the children are obvious. They will have a mother who is in contact with the wider world, whose skills and self-esteem will grow, and who may be more discriminating about boyfriends. They will not have a mother who models life on welfare and so perpetuates welfare dependency through the generations.
The government should be congratulated for taking this step. The difficulties are obvious, the long-term benefits remote. The welfare lobby has opposed the move, believing, as always, too much in welfare payments and not enough in wellbeing.
The government has not tackled the more difficult problem of the single-parenting benefit encouraging the creation of single-parent households. In opposition, the Labor Party opposed the Costello plan of the baby bonus, arguing that it would entice teenage girls to get pregnant. In office, Labor has changed the bonus to a benefit spread over 13 fortnightly payments. But the single-parenting payment itself still exists as a lure to becoming pregnant.
The work of Professor Julie Quinlivan and others shows that some teenage girls do plan to be pregnant. They live in poor, troubled families, dislike school and have the chance of only a dead-end job. A baby gives purpose to their lives and someone who will love them. Their escapist fantasy is supported by the government, which, if they become pregnant, will supply a single-parenting payment and rent allowance.
Whatever the efforts these mothers make, their children are likely to have a bleak future. Anyone of common sense would know that setting up a poorly educated teenage girl to run a family is madness, but the policy continues. This is not to say that a teenage mother should not have any support. There could be managed hostel accommodation for them where their babies would be safe, and they would have help and a chance to improve their skills and take part-time work. The public money spent on the single-parenting payment and rent assistance would help with the costs of the hostel.
Running institutions is a trouble for governments. The better course would be for the government to stop paying the single-parenting allowance to girls under 21 and fund non-government organisations to run hostels for girls who become pregnant and want to have their baby.
John Hirst is a historian and social commentator.