A new report has found a 'worrying' trend among Australian single-parent households - who are dropping out of formal childcare at a higher than average rate, with concerns the cost of services may be behind the trend.
And experts fear it could create a 'vicious cycle' for a group already prone to disadvantage.
The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey collects data from roughly 17,000 Australians on economic and personal wellbeing, as well as employment and family life.
It aims to follow the same group throughout their lifetime to provide a snapshot of life in Australia.
Run since 2001, its latest report, based on 2018 data, was released today and according to The Conversation, highlights a concerning trend for single-parent households.
Writing for the academic based news site, University of Melbourne senior research fellows Barbara Broadway and Esperanza Vera-Toscanon assessed the data for any changes in formal childcare arrangements for the group.
They found that in 2018, the number of employed single parents with young children who had formal care arrangements in place had dropped to 52 per cent – down from a ten-year average of 70 per cent.
Further, the total number of single-parent households with kids aged four and under using childcare had dropped to just 35 per cent in 2018, compared to 52 per cent just two years earlier. This was in contrast to coupled parents, where there was no change in participation.
The decrease wasn't only identified as parents not enrolling children in formal care to begin with, but was also seen in parents who had withdrawn children from existing arrangements.
This was despite female work participation – who make up the majority of single-parent households, having been on the rise within the last twenty years, which has pushed up the number of children in formal care.
Describing the findings as 'very surprising', they said there was no clear catalyst for the trend and suggested the cost of formal childcare was a likely factor.
"It risks kicking off a vicious cycle in which lack of money, lack of childcare, and lack of employment opportunities trap single parents in entrenched disadvantage," they write.
Highlighting that the downward trend coincided with an increase in subsidies for low and middle income families, further perplexed the research fellows. As did indications in the data that there had been no decrease in the need for childcare for these families, as employment levels amongst the cohort had remained stable.
The data also showed that the number of single working parents with young children without formal care arrangements was increasing, suggesting a reliance on family or friends.
"This is a worrying new trend. It sets up single parents for a host of logistical problems juggling multiple care arrangements and unreliable access to care, which can jeopardise their employment in the longer term," they write.
"And because it's unregulated, there's no way to enforce quality standards of informal care arrangements. That could potentially limit children's social, behavioural and cognitive development if they miss out on formal care."
Single-parents not accessing care were also found to more likely live in remote or regional Australia and in socio-economically disadvantaged areas.
Parents who stopped using care also appeared financially worse off than those who continued to use care, but fared better than those who had never enrolled their children.
"In other words, there could be a vicious cycle whereby lack of income (whether because the single parent is unemployed, or employed on a low wage) prompts families to drop childcare, further worsening their economic position down the track because work opportunities are more constrained," they concluded.
Increases in relative poverty rates were also found to be on the rise among the cohort. While the overall rate is 10.7 per cent, for single-parent households in 2018 it was 25 per cent, a 10 per cent jump on 2016.