Election 2007: Family policy

Janet Stanley, Monash University
Brian Howe, University of Melbourne

Child poverty remains a significant impediment to child health and Australian children from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to experience poorer health outcomes (Hood 2006, p. 31). A recent study on child poverty concludes that an increasing body of evidence suggests that there can be major differences in well-being between children living in different geographical areas (Harding et al. 2006). Australia is still a country where life chances are unequal. This damages not only those children born into disadvantage, but society as a whole.

Providing for the well-being of children can be argued as important on the grounds of social justice and equality. But economist James Heckman (2004) has also demonstrated the substantial cost savings gained by investment in early childhood services for disadvantaged children—and the cost of achieving the desired outcomes increase with the age of the child. Using a social investment argument, there is also the case for investing in people for economic and social productivity reasons (Perkins, Nelms & Smyth 2005).

Australia is still a country where life chances are unequal.

In 1997, the Blair Government in the United Kingdom established the Social Exclusion Unit, marking the start of a popularisation of a more expansive and sophisticated discussion about disadvantage, using the term social exclusion. Social exclusion broadly refers to what can happen when people or areas suffer from a combination of linked and mutually reinforcing problems such as unemployment, poor education, poor health, and housing and transport poverty, as well as low income (Social Exclusion Unit 2003). Caring for a child is more difficult where the carer is experiencing social exclusion. The person may have restricted access to resources fundamental for well-being. These include personal financial resources, education, transport and health services. Experiencing multiple restrictions or barriers in itself compounds disadvantage and isolation thus limiting personal parental resources and making it more difficult to provide emotionally responsive parenting.


Economic policy in Australia emphasises an orientation towards export growth, deregulation and open markets, and ideas of personal responsibility. The last has been in vogue since 1996, and has been associated with restrictions in access to social security benefits (Howe 2007), as the ideas underpinning income support policies have returned to value judgements about the deserving and undeserving poor. Some anti-welfare commentators have even described mothers not involved in the paid workforce as ‘idle’, with the solution lying in tightening eligibility of income support payments (Saunders 2007). Blaming individuals for experiencing poverty is one perspective, but it falls short on a number of accounts. It fails to account for structural inequalities in the economy and to grasp the complexity and multiplicity of problems faced by people in poverty.

The policy initiative we propose would be to improve the capabilities of disadvantaged and socially excluded Australian families through two measures: structural adjustments around employment opportunities, and a considerable scaling up of secondary prevention programs which improve the well-being of children by improving the ability of families to provide the nurturing environment they need.

It is important to be able to measure whether the social policy is achieving an increase of well-being for disadvantaged families. Thus, these policies should be accompanied by a national target on child poverty. This was done with considerable success in the United Kingdom, although further reduction in poverty levels is currently proving difficult. The rate of child poverty in Australia varies according to how it is measured, usually judged to be between 11 per cent and 16 per cent, although sometimes higher. A suggested target is to aim for 10 per cent in 2010 and 5 per cent in 2020. This goal is not unrealistic, given that Scandinavian countries currently have a rate that is under 5 per cent. Of course, it is vitally important to fund research to establish a commonly agreed indicator of the extent of child poverty in Australia.


The social goals of government are to create and consolidate and ensure a sense of well-being in the citizens (Manderson 2005). Sen (1987) has argued there are basic human functioning needs and capabilities. A person’s well-being should be based on the capacity to do, which may be unequal between people. To achieve desired levels of capability, it may be necessary to offer more to those with less than others, in order to overcome the systematic disadvantage they face. Social policies to facilitate employment opportunities are needed to prevent the on-going disadvantage and social exclusion of some families.

Policies should be accompanied by
a national target
on child poverty.

Howe (2007) argues that there has been a failure by government in Australia to invest in people and build policy which takes account of the aging population, the feminisation of the workforce, and the changing nature of families. In particular, work opportunities and structures have not been reorganised to take account of the rise in female-headed single parent families. The traditional view of concepts of work—full time employment of men—is narrow and inequitable because it ignores transitional forms of employment and other activities such as caring. Solutions lie in investing in skill development for lower skilled workers and policies around life long learning. Assistance for families is needed to maintain employment opportunities around life transitions, such as between education and employment or between unpaid caring and employment. This can be achieved through the formalisation of transitional labour markets, which systematically support changes in employment status through providing flexibility and security or bridges when life changes occur.


The well-being of Australian children requires that their material, physical, affective, and psychological needs are all met (Prilleltensky & Nelson, 2000). Strong, healthy attachments, which children need to achieve in all these areas, develop through complex and dynamic interactions between a child and his or her mother, other immediate family members, broadening further as the child ages. Thus, the well-being of a child’s family and their ability to provide an environment which fosters the child’s development are fundamentally important, especially for very young children.

Secondary prevention programs target specific ‘at risk’ sections of the population: those with special needs or who are in need of greater support, such as young parents, single parents and people with disabilities. Secondary prevention programs provide various forms of family support and, in particular, teach parenting skills and increase parents’ knowledge of child development and behavioural expectations (Calvert 1993).

Recent reports in Australia suggest that the non-government sector is, at best, struggling to meet the needs of disadvantaged families. The Child and Family Welfare Association of Australia (CAFWAA) reports that the demand for services greatly exceeds the supply: ‘The sector is passionate and committed, but CAFWAA is gravely concerned about its ongoing capacity and viability to meet future needs of children, young people and their families’ (2002 p.45). Other Australian research has shown the negative impact on programs arising from a lack of funding stability (Stanley & Kovacs 2003). It found that many programs were operating on a budget that was far from ideal, needing to rely on the goodwill of staff to ‘make-do’, and using volunteers to undertake tasks such as administration, child care, and even service delivery. A recent report from the National Research Centre for the Prevention of Child Abuse notes the continuing neglect of the early intervention and family support system in Australia (Liddell et al. 2006).

A significant investment of funds is needed to meet current service demands and establish secondary prevention services or bridging measures to assist people to use universal services or services available to all uses, such as maternal and child health nurses. Resources needed to achieve this should not be underestimated. We can learn lessons here from the United Kingdom and the Sure Start program, where families with the most disadvantages are proving difficult to move from social exclusion.

The present state and federal response to disadvantaged families is small in scale. For example, the Federal Communities for Children program (this is not the only federal program) is based in 45 areas of considerable disadvantage around Australia. The model is similar to the Sure Start program in the United Kingdom. However, on a per capita basis, the Sure Start program is five times the size and considerable expansions up to 2010 are still being rolled-out. Meanwhile, many disadvantaged children do not attend even pre-school in Australia. Services such as the Home Interaction Program for Pre-school Youngsters, presently in twelve sites in three states, need to be greatly expanded in order to make any inroads in the total levels of child poverty in Australia.

A significant investment of funds
is needed to meet current service demands.

An increase in resources to programs to assist disadvantaged children and families should be accompanied by other reforms, a few of which are worth mentioning: state-federal program co-ordination and co-operation at the strategic and operational level; child impact statements across functional government departments; the establishment of a federal Children’s Commissioner; and a clear improvement to the effectiveness of our responses to child protection and children’s exposure to violence.


An important report coming from the United Kingdom, Every Child Matters, has given considerable direction to social policy in child welfare (Department for Education and Skills, 2005). It reports on a consultation with children and young people who stated they wanted the following five outcomes:

  • being healthy—physical and mental health
  • staying safe
  • enjoying and achieving—getting the most out of life
  • making a positive contribution—being involved with the community and society
  • economic well-being.

To facilitate the achievement of these wishes, there is a need to ensure that all families are assisted to engage in services available to those members of society who are not experiencing multiple disadvantages. Disadvantaged families need the basic capabilities to achieve social inclusion, family well-being, and the outcomes they desire for their children. Now is the time for national leadership to develop policies for an issue which is clearly in the national interest.


Child and Family Welfare Association of Australia 2002, A time to invest, CAFWAA, Melbourne [Online], Available: http://www.cafwaa.org.au/TimetoInvest.PDF [2007, Oct 11].

Calvert, G. 1993, Preventing Child Abuse: A National Strategy, National Child Protection Council, Canberra.

Department for Education and Skills 2005, From Vision to Reality: Transforming Outcomes for Children and Families, The Stationery Office, Norwich, England.

Harding, A., McNamara, J., Tanton, R., Daly, A. & Yap, M. 2006, Poverty and disadvantage among Australian children: A spatial perspective, paper presented to the 29th General Conference of the International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, Joensuu, Finland.

Heckman, J. 2004, The productivity argument for investing in young children, Working Paper 5, Invest in Kids Working Group, Committee for Economic Development, University of Chicago.

Hood, S. 2006, The State of Victoria’s Children Report 2006, Victorian Government, Melbourne.

Howe, B. 2007, Weighing up Australian Values: Balancing Transitions and Risks to Work and Family in Modern Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney.

Liddell, M. Donegan, T., Goddard, C. & Tucci, J., 2006, The State of Child Protection: Australian Child Welfare and Child Protection Developments 2005, National Research Centre for the Prevention of Child Abuse, Monash University & Australian Childhood Foundation, Melbourne.

Manderson, L. 2005, ‘The social context of wellbeing’, in Rethinking Wellbeing, ed. L. Manderson, Griffin Press, South Australia, pp. 1–26.

Perkins, D., Nelms, L., & Smyth, P. 2005, ‘Beyond neo-liberalism: The social investment state?’, Just Policy, no. 38, pp. 35–41.

Prilleltensky, I. & Nelson, G. 2000, ‘Promoting child and family wellness: priorities for psychological and social interventions’, Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, vol. 10, pp. 85–105.

Saunders, P. 2007, ‘Paying idle parents bad for kids: Get a job, mum’, Geelong Advertiser, 21 March [Online] Available: http://www.cis.org.au/executive_highlights/EH2007/eh44607.html [2007, Sept 21].

Sen, A. 1987, The Standard of Living, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Social Exclusion Unit 2005, What is social exclusion? [Online] http://www.socialexclusionunit.gov.uk [2005, Jul 4].

Stanley, J. & Kovacs K. 2003, ‘Accessibility issues in child abuse prevention services’, Child Abuse Prevention Issues, vol. 18, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.

Janet Stanley is the Senior Manager, Research and Policy at the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Australia, a large non-government agency, Senior Research Fellow, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Monash University and Honorary Research Fellow at the National Research Centre for the Prevention of Child Abuse, Monash University. Janet undertakes social policy research in a range of fields including equity in response to climate change, transport, child welfare, community arts and neighbourhood renewal. She has co-edited the forthcoming No Way to Go: Transport and Social Disadvantage in Australian Communities with Graham Currie and John Stanely.

Brian Howe was Deputy Prime Minister of Australia (199195); a member of the Federal Cabinet (1984-96) and held a range of ministerial portfolios in the fields of Defence, Social Security, Health, Housing and Community Services. He is now a Professorial Associate in the Centre for Public Policy at the University of Melbourne. He is conducting research into sustainable social policy, which examines the conflicting priorities between social and economic policy and has been active in social reform both in and out of government.

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