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New data must take child welfare into consideration

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) says that attention to the well-being of children from families recently off benefits must be at the fore of new data analysis if the undertaking is to be meaningful.

Minister for Children Anne Tolley expressed an intention to analyse more recent data, after the Superu report released last week. However the Superu report data pre-dates welfare reforms that included changes to Working for Families (WFF) as well as sanctions for non-compliant beneficiaries. The Superu report, using data from July 2010 to June 2011, investigates what happened to 140,000 people after leaving the benefit, and whether the transition to work or study was long-term.

The report is silent on children. It does not consider the impact on the lives of children in poverty, and it fails to collect information about whether families and individuals are financially better off after the benefit. There are indicators that being off-benefit may not significantly improve the situation for many children in poverty, including the 40% of children living beneath the poverty line (less than 60% of the median income after housing costs) who have at least one parent working in full-time employment. Ministry of Social Development research has shown that a staggering half of all children suffering material hardship come from working families.

Findings by researcher Alicia Sudden suggest that the situation for many who come off the benefit may even be worsened, and the quarterly benefit figures, which show a lower number of sole parents on benefits do not show evidence of an improvement in livelihood. Sole parents who are pushed off benefits may face difficulties imposed by casual and insecure work conditions that compound with the immediate needs of children. The Superu report found that the rate of return to a benefit was high among sole parents.

While a transition off-benefits and into work or study is a positive step, other factors such as low pay for unskilled work may mean that children in low-income families are still likely to suffer from material hardship.

Of real concern is the rise in the working poor as a consequence of Government policy. According to the Superu report, of the 33% (46,000) who were employed two years after coming off a benefit, 90% had monthly earnings of $1,180 or more (before tax), which was equivalent to the minimum hourly wage for 20 hours per week.

It is impossible to conceive of how parents on that income can pay rent and feed their children, let alone save, even with other supplemental payments.

Meanwhile the Government continues the policy of eroding WFF tax credits for the working poor.

“It is a good thing that Ms Tolley is prepared to take a better look at the data - but the data must be quality and look at multiple variables. To consider only the return to benefit figures is to be blind to the current situation for many who are in low-paid jobs or without income entirely,” says Associate Professor Mike O’Brien, CPAG's social security spokesperson.

“A key consideration should be whether there is improvement in the quality of life for the children and individuals who are no longer benefit-dependent.”