Low-income parents with dependent children are a disadvantaged group for whom the Australian Government provides programs to improve their wellbeing. These parents receive Government payments including a more than base rate of Family Tax Benefit Part A (FTBA) and may use a range of government services including family relationship services.
The Parents on Low Incomes Study (POLIS) is a collaborative research project between FaCS, the Australian National University and the Australian Institute of Family Studies. The project has built four longitudinal datasets on low-income parents that combine survey and administrative data. These data sets are useful for developing an understanding of low-income parents, the difficulties they have and their service needs. The full title of the POLIS study is ‘The Dynamics of Low Income, Welfare Reliance and Changes in the Family Structure of Parents with Dependent Children’.
This article examines the difficulties experienced by low-income parents, the extent to which particular problems persist over time and the likelihood of multiple difficulties. Two groups of
low-income parents are examined. Parents in the first group received a more than base rate of FTBA, but no income support, when interviewed in March 2004. Their data comes from the Family Tax Benefit Success Group survey. These parents had family income levels beyond the income qualification limits for income support. Median annual earned income for these families was $31,000.
Parents in the second group had lower family income levels. They had started receiving Parenting Payment 18 months prior to the interview and were still receiving Parenting Payment when interviewed in October 2003. Their data comes from the Parenting Payment New Claim Survey Cohort 1.
Parents in the first group (FTBA) were asked whether they were currently experiencing any of
14 specific difficulties. Multiple responses were allowed. Figure 1 shows the 10 most common difficulties of these parents. Financial difficulties were most common, nominated by over
60 per cent of parents. Stress related difficulties were also common, nominated by
Figure 1: Current difficulties of FTB Part A parents
Figure 2: Number of difficulties of parents receiving FTB Part A above base rate
close to 60 per cent of single parents and over 30 per cent of partnered parents. Over
40 per cent of single and partnered parents said work and family balance was a difficulty
(44 per cent as a proportion of those in work) and over 30 per cent gave stress at work or employment security as difficulties. Children’s behaviour and child care were a difficulty for almost 20 per cent of partnered parents and a slightly higher proportion of single parents. Close to 40 per cent of single parents experienced conflict with ex-partner and difficulties with child support. Family relationships were a difficulty for 20 per cent of single parents and 10 per cent of partnered parents.
Figure 2 shows that many parents nominated multiple difficulties. On average, single parents nominated four difficulties while partnered parents nominated two. Only 8 per cent of single parents did not nominate any current difficulties, compared with 21 per cent of partnered parents. Parents who had difficulties with family relationships and children’s behaviour were more likely to have many other difficulties.
Figure 3: Difficulties over the past year of Parenting Payment recipients
Parents in the second group (Parenting Payment) were asked in the New Claims Survey whether they had experienced any of 11 specific problems over the previous year. Those who said yes to specific problems were then asked whether they were currently experiencing that problem. They were also asked whether their overall situation had improved or deteriorated compared with one year earlier (major life events had caused them to claim income support 18 months earlier). The specific problems they were asked about excluded three work-related questions asked of the first group, who received a more than base rate of FTBA, and were more likely to be working. Figure 3 shows the nine most common problems.
As the FTBA group of parents was asked about a wider range of difficulties there is no comparison of the number of difficulties between the two groups. However, Figure 3 shows that, similar to the FTBA group, Parenting Payment recipients’ most common difficulty was financial, and single parents’ second most common difficulty was stress related. Employment security was also a difficulty for high proportions of both single and partnered parents. As with the FTBA group, except for employment security and financial difficulties, the proportions of single parents nominating each difficulty were higher than partnered parents.
Single parents in both the FTBA and Parenting Payment groups experienced similar difficulties. In contrast, a higher proportion of the partnered Parenting Payment recipients nominated difficulties compared with the partnered parents in the FTBA group. These difficulties included financial, employment security, children’s behaviour and stress related problems. Partnered Parenting Payment recipients were also more likely than the partnered FTBA parents to have family relationship issues, conflict with the ex-partner, and difficulties with child support.
Figure 4 shows that as with the FTBA group, Parenting Payment recipients were also likely to have experienced multiple difficulties over the past year, particularly single parents. The median number of difficulties nominated by single parents in the Parenting Payment recipient group was three compared with two for partnered parents. The proportion that did not report any difficulties was very similar to the FTBA group: 11.5 per cent of single parents and 22.6 per cent of partnered parents.
Figure 5: Current difficulties for Parenting Payment recipients
Again, as with the FTBA group, those Parenting Payment recipients with children’s behaviour and family relationship difficulties were more likely to have six or more difficulties. Parents with family relationship difficulties had the highest median number of difficulties, five for partnered parents and six for single parents. The median number of difficulties for parents with children’s behaviour problems was four for partnered parents and six for single parents.
Figure 5 shows employment security and children’s behaviour were current difficulties for over
70 per cent of both single and partnered parents. Around one-fifth of Parenting Payment recipients currently had children’s behaviour difficulties and around two-thirds were experiencing financial and stress related difficulties. Child support was a problem for 75 per cent of the single parents, and family relationship difficulties for over 60 per cent. Figure 6 shows that those who did not nominate any difficulties over the previous year felt their situation had either improved or stayed the same. The majority of parents with six or more difficulties over the year said their situation had deteriorated. A small minority (15 per cent) of the single parents who had six or more difficulties over the past year felt that their situation had improved. Overall, single parents were more likely than partnered parents to say that their situation was improved from one year earlier.
Figure 6: Situation improved or declined since a year ago
The most common reasons given for an improved situation were income from employment
(22 per cent), improved relationship with partner or ex-partner (22 per cent), other financial improvements (17 per cent), change in location or accommodation (17 per cent) and for single parents, being more settled or in control (24 per cent). Improved health was only noted by
2 per cent of parents.
The most common reasons given for a worse situation were a decrease in own earnings
(34 per cent), general cost of living (28 per cent), deterioration in own health (19 per cent), and for partnered parents, a loss in partner’s earnings (22 per cent) and for single parents, conflict with ex-partner (12 per cent).
This analysis has shown that similar types of problems are common in both FTBA and Parenting Payment recipient groups of low-income parents, particularly employment security, financial and stress related difficulties. Parents with multiple difficulties are more likely to have family relationship and children’s behaviour difficulties.
The information presented here is at a broad level. The POLIS datasets provide the potential to learn much more about parents and their difficulties. Parents with particular difficulties, or no difficulties, could be examined in more depth, or common combinations of difficulties could be identified. The difficulties of particular groups can be compared, such as employed and
non-employed parents, young and older parents, parents with shared care and those with
non-shared care. For example, earlier analysis1 has shown that respondents to the Parenting Payment New Claim Survey who were in paid employment had a far lower incidence of each difficulty than their non-employed counterparts. Ongoing work on the POLIS datasets will continue to explore these issues and provide more information about the circumstances of low-income parents.
Parenting Payment New Claim Survey October 2003, 2002 Cohort, Wave 3 Report, The Social Research Centre.
FaCS: Vic Pearse (Research and Analysis Branch),
tel (02) 6244 5774 or
Departmental research updates
Women’s life work
A new report that looks at a sample of Australian women who are balancing work and family responsibilities has just been released. The ‘Women’s Lifework Report’ aimed to capture the labour market transition experiences of Australian mothers. The study employed a combined qualitative and quantitative approach, to tell the women’s stories.
The report was prepared for the Ministers Conference on the Status of Women of the Australian, State, Territories and New Zealand Governments with funds from the Women’s Activities Trust Fund. The research was undertaken by Ciara Smyth and Peter Siminski of the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, and Dr Margot Rawsthorne from the School of Social Work and Policy Studies, University of Sydney. This new research will assist in improving understanding of mothers’ labour market experiences, work preferences and the factors that constrain or facilitate their ability to balance their parenting and paid employment roles over the life course.
The research involved in-depth interviews with 20 mothers. The research sought to include a diverse range of women and experiences including lone parents, Aboriginal women, women from non-English speaking backgrounds, and women in non-metropolitan or rural areas. The research also included analyses of quantitative data from the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey relating to women’s labour force participation, family formation, work preferences and life satisfaction.
Some of the key findings of the report include:
women’s work histories are marked by movements in and out of paid work, influenced by caring, study or other circumstances
a range of different work preferences were expressed by the women, with preferences changing as circumstances changed
there was no single driving factor that influenced work preference; it was often a number of interacting factors including finances, enjoyment of work, time with children, the importance of career, time out from caring, domestic arrangements, and being a role model
factors such as available child care, extended families and supportive managers helped to facilitate mothers being able to achieve a good work/life balance
many women reported a mismatch between their work preferences and actual work arrangements. For example, women working part time indicated that they would like more hours of work while women working full time would like a reduction.
The research highlights the experiences of a selection of Australian women, illustrating the complexity and diversity of their experiences, and the complex factors that influence their decision making. The Women’s Lifework Final Report is available on the Office for Women website (‹www.ofw.facs.gov.au›).
FaCS: Paula Mance (Office for Women), tel (02) 6212 9278 or
FaCS longitudinal research updates
The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey
HILDA is Australia’s first nationally representative household-based panel survey. It tracks all members of an initial sample of households over an indefinite life. Interviews are conducted annually, with the first wave occurring in 2001. The data collected includes household structure, family background, marital history, family formation, education, employment history, current employment and job search, income, health and wellbeing, child care and housing. The longitudinal nature of the survey enables analysis of the changes to families and individuals over time, which is not possible with cross-sectional data.
HILDA Survey Research Conference September 2005
The second HILDA Survey Research Conference was held at the University of Melbourne on 29–30 September 2005, with 249 researchers attending and 34 papers being presented. A summary of the FaCS papers presented at the conference appears on pages 12 and 13. A number of papers and presentations from the conference can be downloaded from ‹http://www.melbourneinstitute.com/hilda/conf2005.html›.
Seventy participants attended a HILDA User Training Course that was conducted in conjunction with the conference.
Wave 5 update
The initial Wave 5 fieldwork took place between 24 August and 25 October 2005, with responses from 6100 households. Further fieldwork occurred in October and November with the final follow-up period scheduled for February 2006.
The following new topics were included in Wave 5 of HILDA: fertility, personality, school attendance of children, parents’ education, leave from employment, benefits of paid employment, initiation of marital separation, household expenditure and carer identification. The Wave 5 survey instruments can be found at ‹http://www.melbourneinstitute.com/hilda/sinstruments.html›.
Wave 4 update
The Wave 4 data is due to be released in early 2006. New questions in Wave 4 covered young people’s plans and aspirations, the impact of disabilities, take up of private health insurance and religion.
Wave 1, 2 and 3 access arrangements
Release 3.0 of HILDA data became available in January 2005. Release 4.0, comprising Wave 4 data and revised Wave 1, 2 and 3 data, is due out in February 2006. Researchers wishing to obtain the data can apply by downloading the application form and applicable license from the HILDA website. A small fee is payable. Intending FaCS users should email ‹firstname.lastname@example.org› for the FaCS application form and IT security form.
Enquiries about the HILDA Survey should be directed, in the first instance, to the HILDA website ‹www.melbourneinstitute.com/hilda›,
or to Professor Mark Wooden of the Melbourne Institute,
tel (03) 8344 2089 or email ‹email@example.com›
Growing up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC)
LSAC is a landmark study that will add to the understanding of early childhood development, inform social policy debate and be used to identify early intervention and prevention strategies. Policy areas of interest include parenting, family relationships and functioning, early childhood education and schooling, child care and health. The study will follow two cohorts of children (5000 infants and 5000 4 to 5 year-olds) in biennial face-to-face interviews and one additional mail-back survey, until 2010. Data will be collected from children, parents, carers and teachers.
Between waves mailout
In the week following 23 May 2005, families who were interviewed as part of Wave 1 during 2004 were sent a newsletter updating them on the study’s progress and a short mail-back questionnaire. The questionnaire asked parents to describe what they really liked about their child and, with the infant cohort, there was a series of questions on parent’s employment history, maternity leave and employment after the birth of their child. The response rate for the mailout was 70.6 per cent for infants and 72.6 per cent for the 5 to 6 year-olds. Data from this mailout will be available for release to approved researchers in 2006.
Wave 2 dress rehearsal
The Wave 2 dress rehearsal interviews were undertaken during October 2005. The dress rehearsal showed there is a high level of enthusiasm and cooperation for continuing in the study.
Wave 2 data collection
The Australian Bureau of Statistics is undertaking the data collection for Wave 2. The data collection will involve a computer-assisted interview with the parent who knows the child best. This parent will also complete a questionnaire while the interviewer is in the home and self-complete questionnaires will be left behind for both parents to fill in. Two 24-hour time use diaries will be left behind so that the parents can record how the study child spends his/her day. If the child has a parent living elsewhere and the resident parent agrees to provide contact details for the other parent, this parent will also be invited to complete a short questionnaire.
As in Wave 1, the interviewers will undertake some direct assessments of the older cohort of children. For the first time, the children themselves will be interviewed about how they find school, and their feelings more generally. Weight, height and girth measurements will be taken of all the children in the survey. Questionnaires are also being sent to teachers (for the 6 to 7 year-old children) and child carers (for the 2 to 3 year-old children).
The design of Wave 2 is currently being finalised, with data collection scheduled to start in March 2006.
Findings from Wave 1
Early analysis of the data has provided some interesting results, including:
Seventy-nine per cent of 4 to 5 year-olds had a body mass index within the normal range, 15 per cent were overweight and 6 per cent were obese.
In the month before the survey, 35 per cent of infants had been looked after by someone other than a parent at regular times during the week.
Girls in the 4 to 5 year-old cohort showed better outcomes in the learning and
social/emotional domains than boys.
For 4 to 5 year-olds, attendance in care with an education focus (for example, school, preschool, day care with a preschool program) is associated with improved learning scores compared to care settings without an education focus.
Australian children’s learning readiness at age four
impact of parents’ employment on children’s wellbeing
risk and protective factors for mental health problems.
LSAC/Film Australia documentary
A documentary is being made about Growing Up in Australia to be screened on Australian television in 2006. Families featured in the documentary are not part of the main study. These families have been chosen to represent the diversity of families in the national LSAC study.
Data from Wave 1 of LSAC is available to interested researchers. FaCS staff wishing to apply for access to LSAC data can obtain the necessary application and an IT systems access form from the FaCS Longitudinal Study of Australian Children intranet site.
Researchers not working at FaCS will be required to complete an application and sign a deed of license. These are available from the Growing up in Australia—The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children website at ‹http://www.aifs.gov.au/growingup/home.html›.
FaCS: Margaret Wada (Research and Analysis Branch), tel (02) 6244 7915 or
Footprints In Time—The Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (LSIC)
Footprints in Time was announced in the 2003–04 Budget as part of a package of measures designed to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The study aims to inform our understanding of, and policy response to, the diverse set of circumstances faced by Indigenous children, their families and communities. The study will focus on the links between early childhood experiences and later life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, covering areas such as culture, education, health, family and community.
The study is coming toward the end of the trial phase with the research and evaluation activities in the Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula Area, and Canberra and Queanbeyan near completion. Lessons from the trial phase are being incorporated into the research design for the proposed national study which has three main elements: