Family Dynamics Affect Poverty

Today's AFR runs a cut-down version of Jason DeParle's New York Times magazine piece on family structure and mobility. They asked me to write a short column on the Australian situation to accompany it.
Family Dynamics Affect Poverty, Australian Financial Review, 3 August 2012, R7

There are two polar views on why poverty persists across generations. On the hardline conservative view, poverty is the result of bad choices: not staying in school, not taking a job, not waiting to have a child. At the other end of the spectrum is the view that poverty is simply a lack of money. Provide enough income support, and intergenerational poverty will disappear.

In our hearts, most of us know that neither of these views can be right. And yet many progressives have found the conservative view so harsh that we have recoiled from any discussion about the role that families play in determining children’s outcomes.

Friendly fire can also be a risk. When US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued a report in 1965 finding that poverty among African-Americans was partly driven by high rates of lone parenthood, he was criticised by many on the left for ‘blaming the victim’. Moynihan’s point – that it’s easier to raise a child with two adults than one – was misinterpreted as an attack on black sole parents.

In Australia, 19 percent of Australian children (and 34 percent of Indigenous children) live in lone parent households, up from about 10 percent in the late-1970s. The rise in lone parent households doesn’t have much to do with separation; it’s mostly driven by lower partnering rates.

Crunching census statistics, Monash University’s Genevieve Heard finds that the decline in partnering is strongly related to socioeconomic status. By their early-40s, 16 percent of university-trained men were not in a partnership, compared with 32 percent among men without qualifications. A similar story emerges for women. Since the 1990s, there has been a divergence across educational lines. University graduates are just as likely to partner up as they were in the 1990s, but partnering rates have fallen for the least educated. The result? Disadvantaged children have fewer parents in their homes than in the past.

Nothing has made me more in awe of single parents than having children. When both our boys are ill, my wife and I sometimes shake our heads and ask ‘how do sole parents do it?’. From speaking with constituents who are raising children on their own, I know what enormous sacrifices they make. Part of the problem with the current debate over family structure and child outcomes is that it ends up making single parents feel guilty, while letting absent parents off scot free. A better approach is the one that Barack Obama took in a speech delivered on Father’s Day 2008: ‘What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child – any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.’

Until now, I’ve focused on the impact of family structure on children’s outcomes. But an emerging literature suggests that parenting style matters too. In the US, researchers have shown that children of higher-educated parents are more likely to read books, and less likely to watch television. Affluent parents are less likely to use corporal punishment. Observing a small sample of families with toddlers, a pair of researchers found that professional parents addressed about 2000 words per hour to their children, while parents receiving welfare benefits addressed about 500 words per hour to their children.

We know less about this issue in Australia, but the evidence that exists seems to point in the same direction. In her analysis of Australian data, University of Chicago researcher Ariel Kalil and co-authors compare pre-schoolers with a university-educated mother with pre-schoolers whose mother does not have a high school qualification. They find that children with more highly-educated mothers average 22 minutes a day of reading and colouring, while children with lower-educated mothers average 16 minutes a day. Consequently, the two groups of children arrive at school with quite different levels of preparation. As a politician, this work screams out to me the need to get Australia’s best teachers in front of our most disadvantaged pupils.

The University of Chicago’s Susan Mayer once wrote a book titled What Money Can’t Buy, in which she discussed how her thinking on poverty had evolved. Over time, Mayer acknowledged, she had come to focus less on money, and more on social and cultural explanations for poverty. Understanding the family dynamics of poverty can help us craft smarter policy solutions.

For too long, progressives have been scared off issues of family structure and parenting by a fear of being misinterpreted as blaming some of the hardest-working people in society. But we should not ignore the body of scholarship showing that if we want to cut poverty and boost mobility, we must think seriously about what happens inside families.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and the author of Disconnected (UNSW Press, 2010). His website is www.andrewleigh.com.

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