Tony Stuart is CEO of children’s charity, UNICEF Australia and chair of the Charity, Philanthropy and Fundraising Advisory Group for the National COVID Coordination Commission. He is also a proud dad.
Tonight’s federal budget is an important opportunity to restore long-term growth to the Australian economy by investing in large-scale investment projects, but it is also an important opportunity to invest in the long-term growth of Australia’s greatest resource, our children. Not only because it is the right thing to do but because it makes economic sense.
This should begin with an increased investment in the accessibility of early childhood education and care. For decades UNICEF has prioritised the first years of life across its international programming in developing countries for good reason – experiences in early life influence outcomes later. More than 85 per cent of a child’s development occurs within the first five years of life. Yet, despite our relatively high standard of living, one in five Aussie kids starts school with developmental vulnerabilities. This means that they lack the emotional maturity, communication skills or cognitive skills expected at their age and may struggle to keep up with their peers.
During the recent months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has proven that there are many short-term benefits to improving access to universal early childhood education and care. Extending that short-term relief in Victoria is welcome and will increase workplace participation, however these efforts remain a band aid on one of the lowest standards in pre-school participation in the OECD. Australia ranks 38 out of 41 countries and a staggering 85 per cent of Australian three-year-olds do not attend an early learning education and care facility.
The productivity gains achieved by improving parents’ workforce participation through the provision of universal early childhood education and care would boost the economy. Price Waterhouse Coopers released a cost-benefit analysis that showed the $2.34 billion in costs associated with the provision of 15 hours of early childhood education in the year-before-school, would result in a return of $4.74 billion in benefits to the economy by way of parental workforce participation, educational attainment and future lifetime earnings, higher taxes paid to government and reduced social expenditure on unemployment, health and justice systems costs.
Furthermore, it goes without saying that better literacy and numeracy early on in life results in savings on education costs down the track. Developing strong foundations of cognitive and social skills has been demonstrated as an important factor in early primary school outcomes, reducing the need for special education and the number of children repeating years at school.
Next, Australian children need to be protected from the impacts of poverty. Poverty affects children more than any other age group with the most recent available data showing that one in six Australian children aged 0-14 years were living below the poverty line before COVID-19. Today, the situation is thought to be even worse with one in five families having a parent who is receiving Government financial support, including JobSeeker and Single Parent Payments.
As such, we at UNICEF Australia recommend a permanent and adequate increase to JobSeeker, Youth Allowance and related payments (such as the Parenting Payment) to ensure families can afford the basic cost of living and that children do not go without life essentials including nutritious food, medical care and educational materials. This includes single parents, who need a Single Parent Supplement to cover their additional costs. We also call for the restoration of wage indexation to the Family Tax Benefit.
Finally, ensuring that this social safety net is also working for young people is also of utmost importance as more than 16% of people aged under 25 are unemployed, an increase of 5% since the beginning of the year. Reducing this figure and helping young Australians to realise their potential will require a sustained effort, including strong investment in creating employment opportunities and pathways for young people.
At tonight’s budget, may the government not simply aim to get Australia back into the position it was in before the COVID 19 pandemic, but instead go further, and ensure the next generation of Australia’s children, especially those currently living in poverty, are equipped to manage all that life will throw at them, from climate change, to economic crisis, to the next pandemic. Our kids are worth it.
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