EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
How best to help our children
, July 2, 2005
A report for the Federal Government has recommended changes in the way assistance is given to children of divorced couples.The recently-released review of the Child Support Scheme, conducted by a high-level committee appointed by the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, has recommended major changes to the way in which the scheme is administered by the Child Support Agency.
Australia's Child Support Scheme was introduced in 1988 to establish an orderly method of helping children of divorced parents who often were left in poverty after the breakdown of their parents' marriage. In fact, the scheme is bedevilled by serious problems, including the perceived unfairness in the burden on non-custodial parents, the use of children as a lever in acrimonious divorces, and a significant level of defaulting non-custodial parents who pay little for the upkeep of their children.
The report highlights the difficulty of devising a fair method of determining the liabilities of divorced parents, in light of shared responsibility for caring for children, existing government support programs, the impact of remarriage, the income of one or both parents, the age of the children and other considerations.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that around 50,000 children are involved in divorces every year, and the number of dependent children whose parents are divorced is around a million - a sizeable number in a population of 20 million, and where the number of married couples is around 3.5 million. (Social Marital Status in Australia
, Abdul Hakim, 2004.)Cost of children
The report into child support, titled In the Best Interests of Children
, has published the most up-to-date information on the actual cost of raising children.
Its estimate was needed to determine how much child support a non-custodial parent should pay for his or her children. Its figures make illuminating reading. It found that the cost of children varies, depending on the number of children, their age, and parents' income. For low- to middle-income families earning $25,000, it found that a young child costs over $4,300 a year, while a single child in a middle-income family (earning $50,000) costs over $8,000 a year. Two or three children cost about 50 per cent more, and teenagers are more expensive again.
Little wonder that housing - which today consumes up to 40 per cent of many couples' gross incomes, and probably half their net incomes - requires two incomes, making it extremely difficult for many young couples to have children.
Does the Family Tax Benefit, the centrepiece of the Government's family payment system, overcome this problem? The report shows that Family Tax Benefits approach the actual cost of young children for low-income earners, but the phase-out for higher-income earners means that many parents receive only the base rate, which is less than half the actual cost of young children.
The report has also confirmed the findings of the study by Dr Bob Birrell and his associates at the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, called Men and Women Apart: The Decline of Partnering in Australia
(2004), showing the correlation between poverty and sole-parent households.
The Birrell Report documented an "ominous divide" between children born in married-couple households and those born in lone-parent households: "Those growing up in couple families have the advantage of both higher family income and the presence of two parents. Those raised in lone-parent families must cope with the disadvantage of low family income and the absence (at least in the household) of one parent (usually the father)."
Sadly, most children in de facto
families also fall into the higher-risk category, with many more low-income fathers and unstable parental partnerships than among married couples.
While there are undoubtedly cultural factors contributing to this situation, the decline in full-time employment and the shift to part-time and casual jobs - accompanying the shift from primary and secondary industry to service industries such as retailing, tourism and hospitality - have also played a part.
While improvement in the child support scheme is important, society must recognise that stable marriages provide the only viable foundation on which to address the problems of child poverty.CORRECTION:
In my editorial published in News Weekly
(June 18), I stated, "As to the changes in unjust dismissal laws, the actual number of businesses involved will be relatively small, and there will be no change to unjust dismissal laws for either genuinely small businesses or for large firms."
This is incorrect. Currently, unfair dismissal laws apply to all
employers, regardless of size, and undoubtedly act as a strong disincentive to small businesses taking on additional labour.
Under the proposed changes announced by the Federal Government, unfair dismissal laws will apply only to businesses with more than 100 employees. The new law will cover the majority of businesses and employees. The new industrial law will therefore have a major impact on both employees and employers. When carried by Federal Parliament, the new laws will apply to all employees under the federal industrial system.
- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.