In this post, I reflect on the role of unpaid care in my childhood. How could we better value and recognise the role of unpaid care, most often undertaken by women, in our public policy? One of the quick wins available to the government is to pay superannuation on the paid parental leave scheme.
As my eldest son turned seven in February, I found myself reflecting on my life at the same time. The saying goes, ‘show me the boy at seven, and I’ll show you the man’. Looking back at myself at seven, I can see the seeds of who I am today and the values I have developed.
At seven, my parents formalised their separation with a divorce. Soon after, my dad’s work took him interstate and then overseas. My mum had no family support, dad’s siblings all lived interstate and overseas, and his parents were by this time in their seventies.
When my parents were together, the decision was made for mum to stay at home when they had children. After all, this was the eighties and the idea that a father would share care was almost unheard of. However, mum needed to return to paid work when she became a single mum. Mum retrained at TAFE SA and then did temping before securing a regular job when I was ten.
To make raising three children and undertaking paid work possible, mum needed to build a network around her. Many of the people in her network were in a similar situation to her. I was raised amongst strong single mothers, each with their own stories, including infidelity, domestic violence, and relationship breakdown. I was also raised by my friends’ parents and supported by teachers and out-of-school hours care educators.
On Mondays after school, my friend Lisa and I would get in the back of her dad’s Holden. His job was flexible, so he’d organise his day to pick us up and take work phone calls as we made our way to her Nonna’s house. Once there, we filled up on pasta and panini then we would go and play in the large vegetable garden. Her Nonna spoke Italian, but I understood she was happy to have me, and we always left with a bag of ciabatta for the road.
Our next stop was our dance class. First, Lisa and I helped teach tap to the babies, which paid for my shoe hire and tap class. Then we had our tap and jazz classes. By the time these had finished, my mum had arrived after her work, having picked up my brother and sister from OSHC.
On Thursday, we had netball practice, and on Friday, we had our game. Our family friend Vicky coached my team. Vicky was a police officer who worked shift work and had two young boys of her own. She would drive my friends and me to our netball game in her van.
It was challenging for my mum to get time off work, so my mum’s friends would occasionally take me to appointments. When I needed my tooth pulled out, Wendy took me. I was nervous about the appointment, but Wendy held my hand, and afterwards, we went to the Central Market to get a treat.
My values today evolved through the experiences I had during those formative years. My life was enriched by a village of care made possible through flexible work, unpaid care, paid care, and intergenerational care.
Currently, I see a policy push to support women into paid work through more flexible work and increased subsidies for paid early education and care. I appreciate these are long overdue steps toward bridging the gender pay divide and ensuring women’s economic security.
I also know that society needs to value unpaid care work. As the examples above show, unpaid care was invaluable to my life. Not only the unpaid care of my mum. The many hours I was gifted by our village who took time to look after me and care for me in meaningful ways.
Because of this, I recognise the value of policy ideas like the Universal Basic Income (UBI). The UBI is an approach that values the contribution of all humans and is unconditional. Everybody receives enough to live and then can earn additional income. The UBI is one way to value the many parts of life that are currently undervalued, like care, art, and volunteering.
During the 1970s, UBI was recognised as a viable policy option that could replace the welfare state. It lost favour as neoliberalism rose to prominence and the myth of trickle-down economics took hold. However, without a basic income, there are real concerns about how civility can be maintained in a future where artificial intelligence, pandemics and climate change make it impossible to do traditional work. American tech billionaires have donated to UBI trials across the US.
The single mothers I grew up with are now at retirement age. My mum is in her 70’s and still working. The women who supported me with unpaid care now live with limited superannuation. Additionally, their lifetime of care has led to their bodies breaking down, and they can’t afford the healthcare they need to make their life more comfortable.
I wholeheartedly believe flexible paid work and universal early childhood education and care are part of the solution to addressing gender equity and the blight that is children and families living in poverty. However, not everything can be commodified, nor would we want it to be.
Stanford University’s Basic Income Lab says a basic income would provide a “cash allowance given to all citizens, without means test to provide them with a standard of living above the poverty line”. The Lab’s research shows that people who are part of UBI trials experience greater opportunities to build financial security. Many of the people who benefit most are women and mothers who are able to afford educational expenses, healthcare/medical expenses and housing and utilises.
As a student and practitioner of public policy, I believe more ambitious policy solutions are needed. The proposals need to recognise that life is more complex than ‘get a job’ or ‘have a go to get a go’. As the sticker on my public school classroom wall said, “if you think the system’s working, speak to someone who isn’t”.
Our Federal Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, looks set to announce a substantial increase to the Job Seeker payment in his next budget. This move has taken over 20 years of lobbying by sector leaders such as the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS). We must ask ourselves what kind of society takes 20 years to address one of the key drivers of women and children living in poverty.
Another driver of women’s poverty is the gender superannuation gap. Lifetimes of unpaid care and part-time paid work mean women are more vulnerable to poverty in retirement. Older women are the fastest-growing group of homeless people in recent years.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and others such as the not-for-profit organisations Women in Super and The Parenthood are working to improve women’s retirement outcomes. I encourage you to engage with these campaigns to understand the implication of the current system on you and the women in your life.
A quick win for the government is legislating for all parental leave payments to include superannuation contributions. Parental leave remains the only leave type in which superannuation contributions are not mandatory.
When I commenced parental leave, my husband and I earned a similar wage and contributed separately to our superannuation funds. Since my children were born, I have taken four years of parental leave, both paid and unpaid. Fortunately, my employer did contribute super to the paid percentage of my leave. I received no contributions during my unpaid leave. I have accessed flexible work (part-time) since becoming a mother.
The power of compound interest, or lack of, in this case, means I will likely be up to $100,000 worse off than my husband come retirement. According to a recent KPMG report, $100,000 is the average gap between men’s and women’s superannuation at retirement.
My peers and I can be complacent about our financial futures. We have been fed the idea that we can do everything our male counterparts can. We may believe the time taken to raise children will be returned in kind by the security of marriage or partnership, or future earnings. However, the statistics in no way support this view. Without serious structural change, we, too, will face the possibility of retiring in poverty.
The Hawke government introduced the Superannuation Guarantee Charge Act in 1992. This legislation was instrumental in increasing the percentage of workers with superannuation. In 1974 superannuation coverage was at 32 per cent. In 2010, superannuation levels had risen to 90 per cent. When introduced, Hawke’s policy was world-leading practice. In 2018, the Productivity Commission said, “Australia’s super system needs to adapt to better meet the needs of a modern workforce and a growing pool of retirees…architectural change is needed”.
In 2022 the Morrison government blocked plans to introduce one of the changes needed to modernise superannuation, super contributions on the government’s paid parental leave scheme. There is now an opportunity to bring the proposal to the Albanese government as Treasurer Chalmers reviews Australia’s superannuation system.
To celebrate International Women’s Day (8 March), I have been invited to join the Australian Services Union (ASU) in Canberra to lobby our elected representatives about the importance of addressing the superannuation gap, beginning with legislating for superannuation on the government’s paid parental leave scheme. I would love to share your stories while I’m there.
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To read about public policy that helps dads thrive check out the blog ‘Give dads a go‘.