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Memo to Joe Hockey: it's about families, stupid!

May 16, 2014

Don Edgar

Mums and dads are already doing it tough. Too tough.

'Any measure that affects families' abilities to live up to such standards is a blot on Australia's future.'

'Any measure that affects families' abilities to live up to such standards is a blot on Australia's future.' Photo: Jessica Shapiro

It's ironic that John Howard was lampooned as the ''white picket fence family'' man. At least he got it ? families (in all their variety) always carry the load and need support. Howard, after some convincing, finally put balancing work and family at the centre of his policy.

I wonder if Joe Hockey (who apparently hadn't seen his son for three weeks while he prepared a budget that will harm many families) has any idea that its very purpose is to help families and their offspring? It's all very well to stimulate the economy and get the deficit back into balance, but the real heavy lifting happens now, every day, inside ordinary family life.

Who does he think looks after children; shelters, feeds, socialises and protects them? The mums and dads trying to earn an income in a marketplace economy that is still inflexible, biased against pregnant women, hostile to childcare and aimed at driving down wages.

We now have a quarter of all couples with children where both work full time; 36 per cent with one full-time and the other part-time. Yet this budget neglects childcare and offers a paid parental leave scheme that favours the rich, and only for six months anyway. Moreover, John Howard's Family Tax Benefits (sometimes derided as middle-class welfare) will be reduced. A sole-earner family earning less than $100,000 will lose FTB Part B and indexation is frozen for both Parts A and B. A low-income single parent will get a new $750 FTB allowance for each child between six and 12 but will lose their FTB Part B (worth up to $3018 a year) after the child turns six. Disability support will also be cut, again undermining the capacity of families to carry their caring load. A visit to the doctor will incur a co-payment of $7, something any family with children who get sick often will find an increasing burden.

Supposedly, the aim is to drive more mothers into the workforce, but where are the jobs (or any budget incentives to create more jobs)? And where is the childcare necessary for both the parent's sense of ease and the child's well-being and optimal development? The childcare rebate remains at $7500 per child but FTB Part A has its income threshold capped at $94,316 no matter how many kids you have. What Hockey forgets is that most non-parental childcare (87 per cent) is already done by grandparents ? the larger extended family carries the load.

Hockey is also telling older people that they will have to work longer, as if childcare or caring for an ageing partner is not work. Informal childcare (along with other voluntary work which contributes some $74.5  billion to the national economy) is not regarded as ''work'', and not counted as part of the GDP. It should be because that would show clearly that ''unemployed'' older people are already both sharing the load and helping the economy along. The budget offers employers a wage subsidy for taking on people over 50 (is that their definition of ''old'' now?), but refuses to acknowledge the real work, the ''heavy lifting'' that older family members are already doing.

Hockey is also telling families they, not government, should be responsible for their youthful offspring. Young unemployed people will get no benefits for the first six months, will have to work for the dole 25 hours a week, and if no job is found go back to another six months with no support at all. Before age 25, no Newstart (dole) payment, just Youth Allowance. That's about $100 less per fortnight; try living on that, even with parental support.

With the decline in low-skilled jobs and demand for higher qualifications, 30 per cent of young adults aged 18-34 are still living at home with parents. With youth unemployment already at more than 16 per cent in some areas, who does Hockey think is providing for them? It's families, stupid! Budget cutbacks mean such young people will have less money to help pay their board, or their travel in search of jobs or interviews.

And who carries the so-called burden of old people? Again, Joe, it's families, mostly the older people themselves. Only 5 per cent of those aged over 65 live in aged care accommodation; the rest prefer to live independently or are cared for at home by their families. We call them ''the sandwich generation'', not selfish Baby boomers. A retirement age of 70 is not unreasonable for those who have white collar jobs, but try still digging ditches, or climbing bridge rigging, or even teaching noisy classes of schoolchildren at that age. Already, many older people are in the paid labour force: 71 per cent of those aged 55 to 59, 51 per cent at age 60 to 64; 24 per cent of 65 to 69 year-olds; and 5 per cent of those over 70. Yet age discrimination kicks in at age 45, so employers need re-education, not just an incentive grant for employing older people, though that's a start. The Government's rhetoric about ''the crisis of ageing'' works against more positive attitudes to the aged; the whole culture needs to change.

Tony Abbott and his hard-hearted pals should recite Roosevelt's mantra about the role of good government: family and individual security requires government recognition of the right to a good education, a useful and remunerative job, adequate food and clothing, a decent home, adequate medical care, and the right to protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment. Any measure that affects families' abilities to live up to such standards is a blot on Australia's future.

Don Edgar was foundation Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, and is an Ambassador for the National Ageing Research Institute.