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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1997  
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Contents >> Family >> Living Arrangements: One-parent families

Living Arrangements: One-parent families

In the ten-year period from 1986-1996, one-parent families as a proportion of all families with dependent children increased from 15% to 19%.

A growing number of Australian families comprise children with only one resident parent. For many people, these one-parent families represent a transitional family type. They are most likely to begin when parents in couple families separate from each other and end when lone parents find new partners or children leave home.

Lone parents face challenges at home and in the workplace. They are supported by government and often by family, friends and ex-partners. Nevertheless, one-parent families generally have a much lower level of economic well-being than couple families.


Families and dependants

In this review, one-parent families consist of a parent who did not live with a partner (either married or de facto) together with at least one dependent child of his/her own. Some of these families may also contain co-resident non-dependent children or other related adults. Parents in these families are lone parents: either lone mothers or lone fathers. Likewise, one-parent families are either lone-mother families or lone-father families.

Couple families with dependent children consist of a male and female partner (either married or de facto) together with at least one dependent child. Parents in these families are either partnered mothers or partnered fathers.

Dependent children (or dependants) are all persons aged 0-14 and persons aged 15-24 who are full-time students, live with a parent and who do not have a spouse or offspring of their own living with them.

Some differences occur in definitions over time and across surveys. Major departures from the above definitions are noted in the text.


Recent trends
According to the Labour Force Survey, in the ten-year period from 1986-1996 the number of one-parent families in Australia increased by almost 50% from 311,800 to 467,200. Over this period, one-parent families as a proportion of all families with dependent children increased from 14% to 19%.

Between 1986 and 1996 there was little change in the relative proportions of lone-mother and lone-father families. Of all lone-parents in 1996, 87% were lone mothers and 13% were lone fathers.

The 1992 Family Survey found that 15% of all dependent children were living in one-parent families. Of these children, around one in five was aged four years or under. Just over half of all one-parent families (55%) contained only one dependent child.

Lone mothers are likely to have younger children than lone fathers (see Australian Social Trends 1994, Lone fathers with dependent children). This pattern appears to have become more firmly established. Between 1986 and 1996 the proportion of lone mothers whose youngest child was aged 0-4 increased from 31% to 35%, while the proportion of lone fathers whose youngest child was aged 15-24 increased even further, from 23% to 30%. Despite these trends, the proportion of lone mothers whose youngest child was aged 15-24 also increased, from 14% to 16%.

The proportion of lone parents aged 24 years and under remained low, accounting in 1996 for only 12% of lone mothers and 2% of lone fathers.

ONE-PARENT FAMILIES AS A PROPORTION OF ALL FAMILIES WITH DEPENDANTS(a)


(a) Prior to 1988 lone-parent families include a small number of other non-couple families with dependant children.

Source: Labour Force Survey (unpublished data).

MARITAL STATUS OF LONE PARENTS


(Source: Survey of Families in Australia (unpublished data).


Family dynamics
Few data are available on the transition of people into one-parent families. However, factors other than widowhood and divorce from registered marriages are becoming more significant. These factors include the separation of couples in de facto relationships.

Around 64% of lone parents (289,400) in 1992 were either separated or divorced, the same proportion as in 1982.

In 1992, 32,500 lone parents, or 7%, were widowed, representing falls in both actual numbers (from 37,100) and proportion (from 13%) since 1982.

In contrast, there were large increases in the number of lone parents who were never married. In 1992, 123,000 lone parents (27% of lone parents) were never married, more than double the 1982 figure of 53,500 (19% of lone parents). These lone parents were more likely to be parents who were previously in de facto relationships than single parents who had never lived with the other parent of the child.

Between 1982 and 1992 the number of de facto couples with dependent children rose from 60,900 to 123,100. These couples, like those in registered marriages, are vulnerable to relationship breakdown. Therefore, the greater the number of de facto couples with children the greater the inflows of people from these relationships to the lone-parent population (see Australian Social Trends 1995, Trends in de facto partnering).

FAMILIES WITH DEPENDANTS

One-parent families

Mother
Father
Couples



Age group
1986
1996
1986
1996
1986
1996
(years)
%
%
%
%
%
%

Parent(a)
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
    15-24
13.5
12.3
0.8*
1.8*
6.0
3.9
    25-34
34.2
33.1
21.6
18.0
40.3
34.0
    35-44
36.6
35.7
45.1
43.5
39.8
45.1
    45 and over
15.6
18.9
32.5
36.8
13.9
17.0
Youngest dependant
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
    0-4
31.2
35.4
15.1
14.5
42.4
43.1
    5-9
27.1
25.1
21.3
18.6
23.1
22.8
    10-14
27.8
23.5
41.0
36.7
22.9
21.1
    15-24
13.9
16.0
22.6
30.3
11.6
13.0
'000
'000
'000
'000
'000
'000
Total families
275.2
406.6
36.6
60.6
1,872.3
1,963.0

(a) For couples, age of wife is used.

Source: Labour Force Survey (unpublished data).


Income and housing
Research consistently shows that one-parent families are over-represented among low income families and that they are at greater risk of poverty than couple families. Their vulnerability results from the difficulty of undertaking paid employment while bringing up children alone.

The 1994-95 Survey of Income and Housing Costs found that lone-parent families have much lower incomes and rely more heavily on government pensions and benefits than do couple families with dependent children. In 1994-95, the average weekly income for lone-parent families was $402, well below that of $969 for couple families with dependent children. Lone fathers, who tend to have older children and higher levels of participation in paid employment, were financially better off than lone mothers. In 1994-95, the average weekly income for lone-father families was $506 compared to $385 for lone-mother families.

Because one-parent families have fewer members on average than couple families with dependent children, their costs of living are lower. When incomes are adjusted for differences in family composition and size, the difference in income between the two family types is reduced. Nevertheless, even on the basis of equivalent income, 32% of one-parent families, compared to 16% of couple families with dependants, fall in the lowest income quintile.

Lone parents are more likely to experience housing stress than couples with dependent children. In 1994-95, 35% of lone-parent families were spending more than 30% of their income on housing, compared to 14% of couple families with dependent children. One-parent families are also more likely to live in rented accommodation. This is particularly so for lone-mother families, 59% of which live in rented accommodation.

SELECTED INDICATORS OF ECONOMIC WELL-BEING(a)

Lone parents
Couple parents


Selected Characteristics
Units
Mother
Father
Total
Female partner
Male partner
Total

Income (1994-95)
    Average weekly income
$
385
506
402
. .
. .
969
    Principal source of income from pensions/benefits)
%
64.7
25.7*
59.4
. .
. .
11.4
    In lowest income quintile(b)
%
32.2
31.4*
32.1
. .
. .
15.6
Housing (1994-95)
    Renting
%
59.0
36.8
55.9
. .
. .
19.0
    More than 30% of income spent on housing costs
%
36.0
28.3*
34.9
. .
. .
14.5
Employment (June 1996)
    Labour force participation
%
52.3
77.2
55.5
62.7
93.7
. .
    Unemployment rate
%
17.1
8.8
15.7
6.1
5.8
. .

(a) Based on income units for income and housing.
(b) Based on Henderson equivalent income (see Income - definitions and references).

Source: Survey of Income and Housing Costs (unpublished data), Labour Force Survey (unpublished data).


Work and child care
In 1996, 56% of lone parents were in the labour force. The rate of labour force participation for lone mothers (52%) was lower than that for partnered mothers (63%). The rate for lone fathers (77%), while much higher than that for lone mothers, was nevertheless lower than the rate for partnered fathers (94%).

As the age of their youngest child increased, both lone mothers and partnered mothers were more likely to be in the labour force, and differences in the rate of labour force participation between the two groups decreased. For mothers whose youngest child was aged 0-4, 36% of lone mothers compared to 49% of partnered mothers were in the labour force. For mothers whose youngest child was aged 15-24 there was little difference in the corresponding rates (71% and 72%, respectively).

Of lone parents who were in the labour force, 84% were employed, and nearly 41% of these were employed part time. The unemployment rate for lone mothers (17%) was much higher than that for lone fathers (9%).

Lone parents tend to rely on family and friends if they are not able to care for children themselves. The 1996 Child Care Survey found that 46% of employed lone parents with children aged 0-11 (47,700) used only informal care, compared to 35% of partnered mothers. Among lone mothers who were not in paid employment, 31% used only informal child-care arrangements.

The use of formal child care by lone mothers depended on the hours they worked. Lone mothers working part time were less likely to use formal child care than partnered mothers. However, differences decreased as the number of working hours increased. For those working 35 hours per week or more, there was little difference in formal child-care arrangements between the two groups (see Australian Social Trends 1994, Child care).

EMPLOYMENT STATUS OF PARENTS, 1996(a)


(a) For parents with dependent children aged 0-14.

Source: Labour Force Status and Other Characteristics of Families, Australia (cat. no. 6224.0).

MOTHERS'(a) HOURS OF WORK BY USE OF CHILD CARE, 1996

Not employed
1–15 hours
16–34 hours
35 hours and over




Lone mother
Partnered mother
Lone mother
Partnered mother
Lone mother
Partnered mother
Lone mother
Partnered mother
Type of child care
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%

Formal only
9.9
15.7
7.2
16.3
12.9
15.1
15.8
15.2
Informal only
1.4
20.1
47.6
31.1
45.3
35.7
46.0
38.3
Both formal and informal
8.5
8.4
17.6
15.4
25.2
19.8
26.2
16.4
No care used
50.2
55.8
27.6
37.1
16.6
29.3
12.1
30.0
Total
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
'000
'000
'000
'000
'000
'000
'000
'000
Total
167.8
663.5
38.8
244.5
30.8
307.1
33.2
244.5

(a) Includes mothers whose youngest child was aged 0-11.

Source: Child Care Survey (unpublished data).


Sole Parent Pension
Lone parents with children up to the age of 16 are eligible for Sole Parent Pension. In June 1996, 89% of lone mothers and 47% of lone fathers with children of qualifying ages were receiving Sole Parent Pension. Since the payment became available in its current form in 1989, the proportion of lone mothers receiving Sole Parent Pension has fluctuated between 84% and 90% while the proportion of lone fathers receiving the payment has risen from 33% to 47%.

Of the 342,000 parents currently receiving Sole Parent Pension in June 1996, 30% had received the payment for less than one year, but over one half had received the pension for more than two years. Only 23% had received payments for five years or more. Compared to lone mothers, lone fathers were less likely to stay on the payment for a long time.

Lone parents may move on and off Sole Parent Pension a number of times, depending on income and living arrangements. For a large proportion of lone parents, the period of time they are in receipt of the payment for a continuous interval is quite short.

Of the 127,300 lone parents who went off Sole Parent Pension during 1995, almost one third (32%) had been on the payment for less than six months, and a similar proportion (35%) had been receiving payments for between six months and two years. Only 13% had received payments for five years or more.

LONE PARENTS ON SOLE PARENT PENSION(a)


Source: Department of Social Security (unpublished data), Labour Force Survey (unpublished data).

Government support

Lone parents with children aged 0-15 can receive Sole Parent Pension and Guardian Allowance. Like other pensioners, they can also receive a range of fringe benefits, including Rent Assistance. As for all parents with dependent children, they can also receive the Family Payment and the Family Tax Payment. All of these payments are means tested.

To ensure that only those entitled to Sole Parent Pension receive the payment, the circumstances of sole parent pensioners are reviewed by the Department of Social Security at 4, 8 and 12 weeks after grant, and every 12 weeks thereafter.

Sole parent pensioners are required to take reasonable action to obtain child support from the other parent.

Work force transition assistance through the Jobs, Education and Training (JET) program is available to sole parent pensioners and some other social security recipients.

SOLE PARENT PENSIONERS

Duration of payment

Median
Under 6 months
6-12 months
1-2 years
2-5 years
5 years and over
Total
duration
Recipients
%
%
%
%
%
%
'000
years

All lone parents receiving payment at 30 June 1996
    Women
16.7
12.5
17.9
28.8
24.0
100.0
320.0
2.3
    Men
25.8
16.8
20.1
25.6
11.6
100.0
21.9
1.4
    Persons
17.3
12.8
18.1
28.6
23.2
100.0
342.0
2.1
Lone parents who stopped receiving the Sole Parent Pension during 1995
    Women
31.1
17.0
17.8
20.7
13.3
100.0
. .
1.1
    Men
42.5
20.3
16.5
15.6
5.2
100.0
. .
0.8
    Persons
32.2
17.3
17.7
20.2
12.6
100.0
127.3
1.0

Source: Department of Social Security (unpublished data).


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