Positive plan for teenage parents

tanya_stephen300.jpgThere can be no doubt that becoming a parent for the first time changes your life forever, delivering huge responsibilities and incredible rewards.

But it can be very tough, especially the first time. It’s particularly tough if your first child is born while you’re still in high school.

In the recent Budget, the Gillard Government announced that Shellharbour Local Government Area will be one of ten locations to participate in a new approach to tackle unemployment, beginning with a program to support teenage parents.

This is not an exercise in cost cutting. It’s one of several spending measures designed to encourage greater workforce participation, develop our skills base through workforce training and increase local employment opportunities.

Spreading the benefits of this second mining boom across Australia is a priority for Labor. We didn’t fare so well under the previous Coalition Government.

Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey admitted as much during a Press Club speech this week. Hockey confessed that “we didn't do enough for the Illawarra region when we were in government,” admitting they were “guilty” of ignoring the hardships the area has faced.

Shellharbour’s unemployment rate is around 7.3 per cent, higher than the national average of 4.9 per cent. And we know that for certain age groups, such as young people, the prospect of finding employment is considerably harder.

Making sure the Illawarra gets a fair share of the 500,000 jobs forecast to be created in Australia over the next two years is an important goal for both Sharon Bird and myself.

However, making sure we have the right support in place to get our young people ready for work – with the education, skills and self-confidence employers are crying out for – is just as important.

Labor recognises that teenage parents need extra support to get their lives back on track. Without that help they run a risk of never getting a start in the workforce.

Education makes a real difference. Centrelink data shows that more that 80 per cent of teenage parents in Australia who receive the Parenting Payment have not completed Year 12 or equivalent.

There is also a strong correlation between dropping out of school early and long term unemployment.

The Shellharbour trial is focused on helping teenage parents access quality services for their child while making sure they’re reaching their own educational goals.

Tanya Plibersek, Minister for Human Services, visited the Illawarra this week to meet with community sector workers and stress that the new program is designed to bust welfare dependency before it has a chance to take hold.

Starting 1 January 2011, teenage parents that have not attained Year 12 or equivalent will be required to attend a compulsory interview with Centrelink once their child reaches six months.

These compulsory interviews continue twice a year until the child reached the age of six or until the parent completes Year 12 or an equivalent.

Once the child reaches 12 months, Centrelink will work with the parent to design a participation plan containing compulsory activities such as TAFE or trades training, literacy and numeracy training, active job seeking, play groups, parenting programs and other family services.

Government will be on hand to help with childcare costs and other parenting services.

There will be sanctions if parents fail to meet their obligations without a genuine reason. It will be a much tougher ask than what’s required of teenage parents at the moment.

While there’s been criticism from some quarters that these measures are too tough, others are of the opinion that that the changes are not tough enough.

Personally, I don’t see it as a choice between carrot and stick. Let’s have a bit of both and create the conditions that support activity and participation.

It will cost extra money to provide the case mangers and deliver the services. However, knowing that a lifetime of welfare dependency is more likely in the absence of a good education, it strikes me as money well spent.

This article was originally published in the Illawarra Mercury