Teen mums need support, not threats

Teenage mother
Teenage mother 
So the Gillard Government wants to help teenage mothers break the cycle of social and economic exclusion, in order to achieve better outcomes for themselves and their children. Fantastic! This is the kind of initiative I dream about hearing from our Federal Government, the focus on improving outcomes for children.

But wait. They’re doing it by forcing teen mothers back to work when their child is 12 months old, or else their welfare payments will be cut off? Oh.

I’m sure most of us would agree on the importance of increasing education and workforce rates amongst the welfare dependant. And with studies showing a mother’s education is the key factor linked to her child's future development there is no doubt this is an area worthy of Government investigation. However the budget measures aimed at teenage mothers, announced this week, seem to me to be short sighted, mean spirited and unfair.

In an interesting case of timing, a study authored by the University of Adelaide and published this week found that mothers aged less than 20 formed only 9 per cent of poor child development cases. It found 74 per cent of these cases could be identified among mothers with one or more of six predictors based on age, education, financial status, partner status, smoking and depression.

In that case, why discriminate solely against teenage mothers? And is forcing them to go back to school with the threat of losing their only means of financial support really going to achieve the desired outcome? Last time I checked most teenagers, when forced to do something, are more likely to rebel and do the exact opposite. Or was that just me?

Co-author of the study John Lynch, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health, said the data should be used to better structure help programs for mothers. I am absolutely in agreement with that, I just don’t think this initiative is the way to do it and fear it will do more harm than good.

It is also incredibly discrimatory. Under this plan if you are a married woman in her 30’s with children under five you will be afforded the ‘luxury’ of staying home while continuing to receive the Family Tax Benefit, yet those teenage mums who are probably far more reliant on Government money and unable to pay for childcare will be cut off? It just doesn’t make sense.

Teenage mothers are so vulnerable, so marginalised as it is. A huge number of them have been born into families where low education and welfare dependency have been the norm for generations. They need to be inspired, encouraged and supported to raise themselves out of this cycle, not threatened with financial disaster. Yet in this trial those who refuse to attend school or training will have their parenting payment suspended. It will be compulsory for mothers with a child aged six months or older to attend meetings with Centrelink, where they develop a skills and education plan, which will start once their child turns one.

The objective to increase the education levels of young mums is obviously a good one. However the Government's plan fails to take into account that even the most educated and capable mothers are often still struggling to get out of the house when they have a six month old baby. The overwhelming responsibility of learning how to care for a new child is already such a huge thing, why would we want to further increase the pressure on these already vulnerable mums?

And let’s just stop and consider what would happen if their welfare payments were actually suspend. We already have far too many homeless mothers and children as it is and I can only see this increasing those numbers. How on earth is being homeless going to improve the outcomes for these children?

Another factor this initiative fails to consider is the desire, and the right, of a mother to stay at home with her child. Forcing a mother to go to work and put her child in care when she wants to be at home with them seems barbaric, and if this measure was suggested for older mums there would be an almighty uproar. And on that note, are the studies showing the benefit of mothers being at home with their children for the first three years not equally as persuasive as those focusing on a mother’s education? One could argue the positive impacts of forcing all mums to stay at home for three years, however I can’t see that initiative winning much support!

Of course both choices have merit and the decision for a mother to work or stay at home is a personal one. But that decision is ours to make, not the Government’s.

There are certainly aspects of the plan that have merit, such as ensuring the child attends early learning classes and paying the ‘gap fee’ for them to attend child care and preschool. But why can’t these measures be taken without the looming threat of being ‘cut off’ if they don’t take them?

Why can’t the Government put some desperately needed funds into designated schools for teenage mums, such as the fantastic Burnside High School on the QLD Sunshine Coast. Their fantastic STEMM Program (Supporting Teenagers with Education, Mentoring and Mothering) has shown how successful programs can be when they get it right. The combination of education, on site childcare, transport to get the students there, parenting support, skills training and teachers who believe in them is changing young women’s lives and achieving exactly what the Government wants. However it is done through encouragement and support, not threats.

A love of education, a want for a better life has to come from within. These young mothers and their children deserve it, they need it, but they have to want it for themselves. The trick is finding a way to inspire and foster that desire and then supporting them as a community so they can achieve it. But this isn’t the way to do it.

I am an ambassador for the charity ‘Good Beginnings’ an organisation that focuses on improving outcomes for children through parenting support. You can find out more about them (or even donate!) here.

Amity Dry is a writer, composer, singer and mum of two. She blogs for Essential Baby and is the writer and composer of ‘Mother, Wife and the Complicated Life,’ a new musical that takes a raw and honest look at marriage and motherhood. Follow her on Twitter here.
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