Multiple disadvantage, service delivery and client outcomes in a strengths-based employment program.

Author:Isherwood, L.
  1. Introduction

    Joblessness is a perennial problem in countries at all levels of economic development, with long-term joblessness being particularly difficult to address. Periods of long-term joblessness, lasting more than 52 weeks, can have serious social consequences, contributing to poor labour market outcomes and multiple disadvantages (Headey and Verick 2006).

    In re-entering the labour market, the long-term jobless have to address vocational and non-vocational issues, including layers of disadvantage that being jobless has either caused or exacerbated. Long-term joblessness has been associated with family breakdown, violence, abuse and neglect (Christoffersen 2000); poor health, well-being, and self-esteem (Scutella and Wooden 2008; Whiteford 2009); poverty and homelessness (Steen, Mackenzie and McCormack 2012). It can erode job skills, and the longer a person remains jobless, the lower are their chances of subsequently entering employment (Headey and Verick 2006).

    Disadvantage related to joblessness is often cumulative in nature; for example, joblessness can lead to lower levels of income, thereby increasing the risk of a household living in poverty (Baxter et al. 2012). Indeed, around 70 per cent of all children that live in poverty in Australia are in jobless families (Whiteford 2009).The intergenerational transmission of disadvantage is well recognised; children living in jobless households are themselves almost twice as likely as those with working parents to experience unemployment and subsequent disadvantage in adult life (Headey and Verick 2006). Long-term joblessness also imposes costs at a societal level: reducing productivity and increasing public expenditure on services such as welfare, health, education and criminal justice (Moskos et al. 2009; Australian Social Inclusion Board 2011).

    Employment commonly provides an important pathway for moving out of disadvantage (McLachlan, Gilfillan and Gordon 2013); promoting social inclusion and equity, as well as directly addressing the adverse personal, social and economic consequences of joblessness. Reducing long-term joblessness may also stem the intergenerational flow of disadvantage and social exclusion (Headey and Verick 2006). However, jobless individuals experiencing multiple disadvantage have a lower likelihood of securing employment (Brown 2001; Perkins and Nelms 2004). Joblessness is also associated with place-based disadvantage (Fowkes 2011). Significant geographical differences in the distribution and prevalence of joblessness exist within Australia with rates of joblessness being typically higher in regional and rural towns with depressed local economies than metropolitan areas. Outer low-socioeconomic suburbs also have higher rates of joblessness than inner suburban areas (Moskos et al. 2009).

    Supporting the long-term unemployed to participate in the workforce has been an important government policy in most western countries, including Australia (McDonald and Marston 2005; Ben-Galim 2010). Labour market programs across the western world have typically shared a common 'work-first' approach, predicated on the notion of moving welfare recipients as rapidly as possible into jobs with minimal cost intervention and some element of compulsion (Dean 2003).This model, however, is most effective in assisting those who are short-term unemployed with recent work experience, skills or qualifications to re-enter the workforce (Perkins 2006; Meadows 2008). For the long-term unemployed, this approach consistently fails to secure positive sustainable outcomes (Meadows 2008; Perkins 2008). Indeed, the 'hard-to-serve' (Danziger and Seefeldt 2003) includes jobseekers from the most disadvantaged groups who tend to gain little from the standard short-term injection of assistance (Mitchell, Lightman and Herd 2007; Cortis, Bullen and Hamilton 2013).

    Consequently, the development of employment programs targeting the long-term jobless have begun to shift their emphasis away from a 'work-first' to a 'life-first' approach that is far more sensitive to the impact(s) of multiple disadvantage on the capacity of people to become gainfully employed (Dean 2003). 'Life-first' employment programs place priority on addressing the life needs of individuals (e.g. health and housing) above obligations to find work (Walker et al. 2016). Previous research has identified key features of 'life-first' programs which lead to successful outcomes for disadvantaged jobseekers. Strengths-based case management approaches which enable individuals to identify their own strengths and work to wards personal goals, have been found to be effective when working with families experiencing multiple disadvantage (Moskos et al. 2009). Further successful elements of these programs include having a strong focus on vocational efforts, taking account of individual work preferences and promoting opportunities for training and skill formation (Shaheen, Williams and Dennis 2003; Perkins 2008; Moskos et al. 2009).

    Similarly, over recent decades government policy and research has shifted from a focus on poverty to understanding and addressing the broader concepts of social exclusion and multiple disadvantage (Valentine 2016). The measurement of multiple disadvantage goes beyond examining income deprivation, and takes a more holistic perspective incorporating personal capacities, material resources and economic and social participation (Scutella, Wilkins and Horn 2009). Building on measures developed by The Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE), Stewart (2002) has identified that there are five primary domains of well-being (or conversely socio-economic disadvantage or exclusion): material well-being, social participation, education, health, and participation in productive life (including being in paid employment).

    This article adds to understanding about how multiple disadvantage impacts upon service delivery and outcomes in a 'life-first' employment program --the Building Family Opportunities (BFO) program. Given that the BFO program explicitly targeted the most disadvantaged jobless households, this study examines the relationship between long-term joblessness, multiple disadvantage, service delivery and employment outcomes. In particular we describe how these high levels of disadvantage impacted the 'success' and operation of the program as well as highlighting lessons for future employment policy and programs that can be learned regarding the interplay between disadvantage and employment outcomes.

    Building Family Opportunities (BFO) program

    The BFO program is an initiative of the South Australian Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) and was administered by the South Australian Department of Further Education, Employment, Science and Technology (DFEEST). Funded by the South Australian government, the BFO program was developed by the South Australian Social Inclusion Unit as part of their broader Sharing Opportunities Reference. The pilot phase of the BFO program operated from June 2010 to December 2013 in three local government areas in South Australia: Playford, Port Augusta and Port Adelaide Enfield. All three areas initially selected for the BFO program had considerable levels of place-based social and economic disadvantage and associated high rates of joblessness. The BFO program has since been expanded and continues to operate in metropolitan and regional areas across South Australia.

    The BFO program followed a life-first approach and targeted long-term jobless families. Using strengths-based case management, the BFO program offered up to 18 months of intensive support to participating families. The primary objectives of the program were to: (i) increase the social and economic participation of long-term jobless families; (ii) secure sustainable employment for one or more family members; (iii) increase the participation and engagement of children and dependents (whose families were participating in the program) into education or work; and (iv) improve the responsiveness of systems and services to meet the needs of long-term jobless families in order to increase their workforce participation.

    Families were eligible for participation in the BFO program if they had (i) a dependent aged 24 years or less, (ii) a parent who was on income support, and (iii) no reported earnings from employment in the previous 12 month period. Participants were either self-referred or invited into the program by government organisations and local service providers. Families participated in the BFO on a voluntary basis, on the understanding that at least one family member wished to find employment.

  2. Methods

    Using a mixed methods approach, the study first quantifies the level of disadvantage experienced by program participants (measured by the number of domains in which disadvantage occurred) and then explores:

    * The association between level of disadvantage, service delivery and outcomes with regard to education and employment for jobseekers;

    * How multiple disadvantage impacts upon service delivery approaches; and

    * How insights gained might inform future policy and employment programs.


    This article draws from quantitative and qualitative administrative data collected from the three BFO sites over the first three years of operation as a part of the program's formal evaluation. The evaluation followed an action research methodology which was built into the BFO program design to assess the extent to which stated objectives were achieved and to identify areas for improvement. The evaluation of the BFO program received ethical approval from the Flinders University Social and Behavioural Research Ethics Committee and met Australian government guidelines for conducting social research (National Health and Medical Research Council 2007).

    The administrative data used in this study was collected by BFO staff and managers on a monthly basis at both client and...

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