The 12th annual statistical report of the HILDA Survey was released yesterday. The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey is a longitudinal study started in 2001 that follows a representative group of Australian households.
Media attention has focused on insights the data provides into significant economic shifts, such as those under 40 being locked out of the housing market or struggling with higher mortgage debt, and significant changes in attitudes to same sex marriage.
The lens that Council of Single Mothers and their Children applies is, of course, to examine what the data tells us about the families we represent and support, and the picture is bleak.*
21% of single parent families are living in poverty in 2015, a figure that has hardly budged since 2001.
Children in single parent families have a “very high” probability of living in poverty, with 23% in poverty in 2015, and the figure has remained stubbornly around 20-25% from 2001 to 2015. By comparison, the rate of poverty for children in couple families is currently about 5%. Have a look at the graph below from the report – it speaks volumes.
Levels of welfare reliance (where income support benefits are the main source of income) are dramatically higher for single parent families, although they have dropped over the time period and now sit around 30%.
What interests me most, and seems to have received very little media attention, is that the data provides another significant insight into why poverty and welfare dependence are so high for single parent families. It devotes eight page to examining child support and the picture it paints is very revealing.
55% of majority-care parents (those with 50% of care or more) receive no child support, including both regular support and/or irregular payments for expenses such as school fees and clothing. 55% receive nothing! Furthermore, those receiving regular child support have seen payments go down: the mean amount received in 2013-2015 is $6,429 compared to $6,978 in 2002-2004 (converted to December 2015 prices).
Indeed, the HILDA report reads like a manual for maximising the chances of receiving the child support that has been calculated you need to raise your children (by the Child Support Agency in 83% of cases). You’re more like to receive your child support if you have two or more children; if the minority parent does not have other children in their household; if the majority parent is employed part-time (but not full-time or unemployed); and if there is frequent contact between the children and the minority-care parent.
So here we have a vital piece of information on the stubborn poverty single parent families are facing, and the high levels of welfare reliance. The majority of these households (84% at least) are female headed and these women are undertaking the caring responsibilities for their children and, where possible, working. They are doing their best to support their families and give their children every chance they can.
Many of these households are reliant on government benefits to support their caring roles and the inadequacy of income support payments, which bodies such as the Business Council of Australia have deemed insufficient, is driving this poverty. The additional factor, and a key driver for welfare reliance, is unpaid child support.
The total amount of unpaid child support in Australia is upwards of $1.5 billion. Children’s ability to fully engage in their schools and their communities now and into the future are being damaged by the poverty in which they are struggling. Their mothers are doing all they can to create a good life, provide opportunities for their children to thrive, and find a way out of poverty.
Single mothers need more than just adequate income. They need flexible employment and study, affordable childcare, secure housing and support to foster their own wellbeing and their children’s. And they need the child support they are owed to be paid on time and in full. But even without easy access to all of these fundamental components of life, single mothers are doing a great job raising their children.
This is what the data tells me: the true heros are our single mothers. Let’s start treating them that way.
*The report does not desegregate the single parent family data by gender, however women head approximately 84% of single parent families.