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Good news – the budget provides a $25 a week increase to the sole parents’ benefit. Complicated news – the budget requires sole parents to be available for 20 hours paid work when their youngest is 3 (currently 15 hours at age 5). Childcare subsidies are also extended by a dollar an hour for low-income families. 

I don’t buy into the idea that it’s out and out terrible to expect parents to work when their kids are three. In some ways, three is no worse than five. And in some ways 20 hours is no worse than 15 hours, it depends how the hours are configured. That said, juggling parenting and work is complicated. It’s fine when things are fine, but as soon as there’s a spanner in the works – like a sick child – it gets tricky. Once kids are at school, the costs of care between 9 and 3 are fully funded, but on the other hand, if your part-time job requires you to work between 8am and 1pm every day, it might actually be easier when the kids are younger because many childcare centres open early and some offer half-days. If you work a night shift or an early morning shift  this might also be easier with younger children, who don’t have to get to school at a set time. The funding available when kids are younger is more flexible (the 20 hours ECE could be used for a home-based Barnados carer who is available on weekends, for example); on the other hand, it’s patchy, early childcare is provided through a range of community providers, small businesses, large chains, in home care, and various others; and not all offer the 20 hours ECE subsidy, and some charge a top-up. 

Since I last wrote about childcare, we’ve decided to bite the bullet and enrol the little dude full-time at his crèche. We pay for 45 hours a week, even though he’s only there for 30 hours a week. This is the least-bad option, but it’s an option that is available to us only because we earn enough to be able to take it up. The cheaper alternative would be to cram my hours into three days – but I can’t actually keep on top of the workload if I’m not in the office at least four days a week, and a 9 hour day at creche three days a week would lead to a very tired and strung out boy. So adding one more day was an easy call. Then I realised that, wait, I only get five days sick leave a year! If he’s enrolled for the full week, I have the flexibility in childcare to reshuffle my hours when he’s sick and minimise the amount of leave I take (this is also good from the perspective of getting the work done). Another alternative would be to enrol him at a centre that closes sooner. Centres with shorter hours are cheaper. That wouldn’t work from an office perspective – sometimes I need to be available for a meeting that finishes later. I don’t usually pick him up after 5pm but I need to have that option; and my husband definitely needs this option for the occasions when I might have to go out of town on a work trip and leave him with the pick-up job (let alone do something in the evening!). 

These are the childcare issues faced by someone with the sort of job that makes it relatively easy to be a working parent, and the sort of salary that makes it relatively easy to chose more expensive options that better enable paid work. 

A sole parent moving off a benefit faces a raft of additional issues. First, obviously,  they don’t have a  partner with whom to share the care. Ah, kinda a big deal?! Second, they don’t have a job to start with, so there’s not built-up goodwill with an employer. Again fairly major. Last week Wellington flooded. I got an email from the crèche saying that all parents were requested to pick up their kids as soon as possible. I popped my head into my boss’s office and said basically “going now, crèche is closing because of the floods, I’ll treat this as my half day, bye”. He was cool with it because I’ve proven myself in the role and he knows he can trust that I’ll make up the hours and get the work done. Can you imagine getting this past an employer who’s only just hired you, especially during the 90 day trial period? Uh, not likely. Third, if you’re moving into a job off a benefit chances are the job isn’t going to be especially well paid, and it’s probably not the sort that offers flexible hours. It might be the worst of all worlds – irregular hours or shift work, flexible from the employer’s end but not the employee’s end. And finally, there’s the issue of arranging suitable childcare in the short time between finding a job and starting the job (if you’re returning to a job after maternity leave you have a year to plan!). Not to mention the issue of not having money available to pay for things like transport to and from work and childcare. 

Many of these issues arise under the status quo as well. Starting work when your child starts school is far from ideal. That’s a lot of change and disruption for a family – two big life events at the same time. Also, being a working parent with school-aged children adds the complication of school holidays.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that there be an open-ended benefit for sole parents until their kids grow up. It’s just that our work expectations assume a lack of family responsibilities. What if you’re a sole parent and your child has a health issue? Or your own parents also need care? What if you have a health issue yourself? What if you had kids young and want to do some training so that you can ultimately get a better job, and also demonstrate to your kids that education is important? What if you moved out of the city when your relationship broke up, so you could be closer to family support, and because your benefit would stretch further in an area with lower rent and transport costs – but now you need a job and there aren’t any where you live? 

Requiring parents on benefits to be ready for employment when kids turn three or five or whenever – until employers are ready for parents it’s all unworkable.