The trouble with having an out-of-work parent

An Adelaide teen shares the personal cost of disadvantage

For 16-year-old May, the hardest part of living in a family with limited financial resources is the pressure of trying to keep up with the standards of schoolwork by her classmates.

The Adelaide-based Year 12 student says lack of access to the internet at home and an unstable housing situation have meant she hasn’t received the same quality of education as her peers.

“The stress of money and living throughout that time pushed me away from the idea of doing something like that.” – May

“Having a low income is really hard because I struggle to find support for my mental health issues and then that leaks into my schoolwork,” she tells Eternity. “I need to catch up on my schoolwork and be at the same standard as everyone else.”

May’s problems highlight the challenges faced by young people living in families without a working parent or guardian, according to Mission Australia’s “Working Through It” – Findings from the Youth Survey 2018 report.

The report highlights significant differences between the responses of economically disadvantaged 15 to 19-year-olds and those who have parents with paid work. It pinpoints how these income disparities affect young people’s wellbeing, aspirations, post-school plans, family relationships and support when their parents are not in paid work.

May says being in a low-income family with a single parent on Newstart for much of the past eight years has affected how she thinks about her future. An intelligent and articulate adolescent, she was interested in getting into psychiatry. May realised during Year 11, though, that she had no realistic prospects of being able to complete the university training.

“I would need a lot better grades than I was getting at that point and have to be working a lot harder. And then it’s a very expensive thing as well, like a 12-year course to complete. And the stress of money and living throughout that time pushed me away from the idea of doing something like that.”

While she would still like to go to university, May is intimidated by the cost involved. She is thinking about going into beauty therapy and tattoo art after school instead.

In response to the new data, Mission Australia is urging governments to better support families and young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, to reduce the stresses and pressures they face and help them achieve their potential.

“These findings underscore the need for targeted policy and service responses …” – Mission Australia CEO James Toomey

Operating for more than 160 years, Mission Australia is a national Christian charity helping vulnerable Australians. CEO James Toomey said about the “Working Through It” data: “The effect that a family’s limited financial resources has on young people as they move through adolescence to adulthood is extremely concerning. We must listen to the voices of young people facing economic disadvantage who feel less supported, have poorer feelings of wellbeing, risk educational disengagement and report more barriers to finding a job.”

“These findings underscore the need for targeted policy and service responses to address the risks of intergenerational, entrenched disadvantage through education, employment and community programs. Policies and supports must be prioritised and put in place so that economically disadvantaged young people are supported to achieve their goals and families are properly assisted during times where parents are not in paid work.”

The findings reveal that economically disadvantaged young people receive less support to deal with important issues than respondents with parents in paid employment. Nearly one in five (19.4 per cent) reported feeling they did not have someone they could turn to if they were in trouble or facing a crisis. This was more than double the proportion of respondents with parents in paid work who felt the same (8.4 per cent). Also, more than twice the proportion of economically disadvantaged young people reported feeling very sad or sad with life as a whole (19.3 per cent compared with 9.3 per cent of their peers).

Economically disadvantaged young people were less likely to report that they would seek support from a friend, parent or guardian, or a relative or family friend than their peers.

“I felt so abnormal and out of place.” – May

May agreed with this finding, saying she didn’t feel she could confide in her friends about her problems for fear of being isolated and judged.

“I had all these pressures of ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do’,” says May. “I can remember clearly a day where we were meant to be planning out and deciding university and stuff like that, and I was sitting there in that lesson and freaking out because I didn’t know what I was going to do. I left the classroom and didn’t tell anyone because if I did I was going to be judged because everyone else has these clear outlooks. I felt so abnormal and out of place.”

Young people whose parents do not have paid work indicated much higher levels of personal concern about financial security, family conflict and discrimination than their peers (27.3 per cent, 24.7 per cent and 16.1 per cent, compared with 15.8 per cent, 17.1 per cent and 10.3 per cent). They also reported higher levels of personal concern about domestic/family violence, bullying/emotional abuse and suicide.

“Programs that offer the flexibility to work with a young person’s family are essential.” – James Toomey

May counts herself among the higher proportion of economically disadvantaged young people who have experienced barriers to finding work (51.9 per cent compared with 38 per cent among those from families with paid work). She had part-time work with a Coles supermarker but was fired when she had time away to grieve for her grandmother. She now finds herself in competition for entry-level casual jobs with teenagers who have had more experience, often with family businesses, and better access to transport.

Toomey commented: “There remains a glaring gap in transitions programmes available to the most disadvantaged young people. Strengths-based programmes that offer the flexibility to work with a young person’s family are essential. These programmes should include careers advice, mentoring, skills training, help to re-engage with education and work experience. They should also assist with working on underlying issues that might stand in the way of a young person securing and maintaining employment.”

“The impact on young people of living in economically disadvantaged families are evidenced in this research and are only exacerbated by the low rates of Newstart and Youth Allowance which are too low to support disadvantaged families through tough times.”

A total of 26,935 young people who took part in the Youth Survey 2018 responded to the question regarding the employment status of their parents. The vast majority of these (96 per cent) had at least one parent or guardian in either full-time or part-time work. A total of 1080 (4 per cent) young people who took part in the Youth Survey 2018 reported that neither guardian was in paid employment.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were 339,000 “jobless families” in Australia in June 2017, which accounts for 11 per cent of all Australian families with dependants. Of these, 128,100 were couple families with dependants, while 210,900 were sole-parent families with dependants.

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