The rise of political familism

As a single and childless male I know an election year won’t be good for me. On both right and left, the trend is toward political familism, with the interests of people with kids put above those without.

On the right, the main trend has been toward income transfers. This year the Howard government plans to spend a staggering $28 billion on financial assistance to families with children. It’s the second-largest item in the federal budget after the aged pension, and does not include indirect benefits such as schools and health care. This largesse has helped make the Howard years exceptionally good for people with kids. In the latest NATSEM study Ann Harding calculates that real disposable income has increased by 29% for couples with kids over the last decade, for single parent families by 26%, for couples without kids by 23%, and for single households by 15%. This of course isn’t just government benefits; rising real wages and increased labour force participation are important too. But family benefits payments have undoubtedly skewed the income distribution further away from the childless. Everyone pays unnecessarily high taxes, but only those with kids get money back.

On the left, the main trend is toward advocating further intervention in the labour market in the interests of families. Kevin Rudd has enthusiastically embraced this agenda. In his first speech to Parliament as Labor leader, he said: [restored from NLA website]

…families are such a basic social institution that they deserve special protections. When you instead have a set of laws which says that you can be told to work at any time of the day, at any place and for virtually whatever rate of pay, that it can include weekends or whatever and that you can have your shifts and rosters changed at a moment’s notice, just pause for a moment. Let us think through where that all goes in terms of the impact on working families.

As yet, it is unclear exactly how this might translate into policy. Late last week, Julia Gillard floated the idea of pressuring employers of people with kids under six years of age to permit part-time work without the disadvantages often associated with it, such as less training. Barbara Pocock’s book The Labour Market Ate My Babies, cited by Rudd in his CIS speech, proposes that:

…Australian labour law should be amended to increase the time autonomy of workers, especially those with care responsibilities. …within a framework that restricts long working hours … [including] new capacities for changes in working hours that are initiated by employees…all parents [to have] an opportunity to take up to two years out of paid work with income support on the birth of a child.

Obviously making half a million people a year eligible for income support (250,000 births times two parents) has fiscal implications, and means higher taxes for others or less spending on other things. But this kind of labour market intervention also has significant implications for other workers, who must fill the gaps left by people who decide, without reference to others, to vary their hours of work. Inevitably, the childless or empty nesters will pick up most of the slack, lacking the ‘childcare centre shuts at 5.30pm’ and other excuses of workers with kids.

The basic concerns behind political familism have been widely accepted, even if the major political parties do not have the same policy responses. But these concerns do not seem to me to be compelling enough to warrant the redistributions of time and money occurring or being proposed.

As the NATSEM research shows, families with kids have higher incomes than other kinds of households, receiving about $250 a week more on average than the next most affluent household type, couples without kids. In my article on ‘big government conservatism’ I report research from the mid-1990s showing that at that time people with kids had above average satisfaction with their financial situation. Yet for all the spending, it is hard to see any significant trends in the basic family statistics except for increased use of formal childcare.

Obviously parents need time to look after their kids, and many surveys have shown at least a large minority of people perceive some conflict between work and family. But this in itself is not a policy, as opposed to personal, problem. For most people, there are more things they could do with their time than there are hours in the day or days in the year. Inevitably, trade-offs need to be made between competing uses of time. But the ‘right’ trade-offs cannot be set in Canberra or by academics. They depend on a wide range of personal, family, and work circumstances, which will vary greatly from household to household and within households over time.

For example, in the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes about a third of respondents said they would like to spend less time in their paid job and 70% said they would like to spend more time with their families (implying some other activity ought to be reduced). But only 10% agreed that they would rather ‘work fewer hours and earn less money’, with twice as many saying they would rather ‘work longer hours and earn more money’. So while in a constraint-free world we would have more of everything, in the real world of trade-offs work is more preferred than it might appear if we just looked at questions about work and family. In the kids interviewed for Pocock’s book about their parents’ work hours the same pragmatism is on display. Many would like to spend more time with their parents (particularly boys with their fathers), but they also accept that their parents need to work, often for money but also because they enjoy it.

People also adjust without intervention from above. In an analysis based on HILDA data, between Wave 1 and Wave 2 (about a year) about 30% of those described as ‘conscripts’ to long hours (50 hours a week or more) went to shorter hours, along with about a quarter of those described as long hours ‘volunteers’. There are several ways this can occur: the long hours were just a spike in work which went away, employers take on more people to reduce hours (when demand increases, employers often work existing staff harder and take on more workers only when they are confident the higher demand will last), or workers change jobs. There is also considerable movement (about a fifth of each group) moving between ‘volunteer’ and ‘conscript’, showing changing preferences for hours worked but not the fact of long hours.

It’s far from clear to me that blunt rules imposed by policymakers can improve on this dynamic process of trade-off and adjustment. Prohibiting long hours might help ‘conscripts’ to reduce work. But it would be bad for those who enjoy their work, or need the money, or both. There would also be flow-on effects for those who rely on the work done by long-hours employees. These will be worst in occupations where there are existing labour market shortages, and no spare workers to make up for the hours not worked. With such shortages widespread in health professions, much longer waits to see medical professionals may not seem so ‘family friendly’.

Political familism doesn’t just disadvantage single people to provide added assistance to families who do not necessarily have greater needs. It is an attempt to replace individual judgments made by people in and out of families with collective judgments made by social critics and politicians. Liberals – small ‘l’ and large, welfare and classical – should resist these intrusions into the private sphere.