In the past ten days, media outlets have focused on the scandal of the Speaker of the House’s claim of expenses for her work as Chair of the Standing Committee on Families and Human Services. Her apology (too little, too late) and subsequent resignation, were for me of less consequence than her displays of surprise at the public’s concern that she would spend funds in such a manner. Even more disturbing was Ms Bishop’s sense of entitlement, which was so obvious each time she spoke publicly on the matter.
At about the same time Ms Bishop was being surprised by our response, Professor Tony Vinson, with Jesuit and Catholic Social Services, was releasing their second edition of Dropping off the edge. This important report drives home the reality of persistent and entrenched locational disadvantage. The findings of this report are a real scandal facing the nation. A scandal of far greater proportions than the misuse of public funds by a wealthy politician is the reality that where children are born dictates their fate. Too many children are living in extreme poverty and disadvantage with little hope of a future including economic prosperity; they are let down by a lack of opportunity and aspiration.
In 2007, Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services Australia commissioned research into place-based disadvantage across the nation. Since its publication, all levels of government and social service providers have used it in an attempt to address the challenge of entrenched and often complex geographical disadvantage. It is deeply distressing that eight years later, in the current report, a number of communities across Australia are shown to have disproportionately high levels of unemployment, low family income and education, housing stress, domestic violence, and high crime rates.
The report found that 1.7% of postcodes and communities across Australia are more than seven times more likely than average to hold top rank positions on the major causes of intergenerational poverty. These factors limit life opportunities and place significant social and economic costs on the broader community. Professor Tony Vinson is quoted as saying:
Our findings demand recognition of a common pattern associated with inadequate education and training – unemployment, low income, poor health, and ‘making ends meet’ by criminal means, resulting in high rates of convictions and imprisonment. Where these characteristics are concentrated, there, too, we find high levels of confirmed child maltreatment.
Dropping of the Edge pushes home the mammoth task for government, policy makers, and social service providers, as many communities identified as disadvantaged in 2007 once again head the list in each state and territory. As Australians, it is imperative that we rise to the challenge of finding ways and means to arrest the persistent and entrenched locational disadvantage that exists for many of our communities.
As a young woman in the 1970s, I grew up in the firm knowledge that education and a job were my entitlement, and I could rightly expect to walk into employment after school. This I did without too much trouble; I had hope of a reasonably secure future. I realise now that I am one of the privileged, as I look back on a life of full employment, good education, a roof over my head, and a small but disposable income. What happened, I ask myself, that in the 21st century, in a country as prosperous as ours, we have produced entire communities without a reasonable expectation like my own experience, and no hope for it either?
To ensure these communities and future generations have improved life opportunities, it is important we make certain they have access to education, employment, housing, and safe communities. Without these safeguards, the next generation will not thrive. It is also important to understand that solutions must be long-lasting, multi-dimensional, and intensive, in order to address ingrained patterns of unemployment, educational under-achievement, and family breakdown.
Taking an approach that focuses on helping the most disadvantaged families and increasing long-term social mobility will go a long way to ensuring future generations can leave behind disadvantage. Too often, the circumstances into which children are born, rather than their natural talents and efforts, drive their educational attainment. This, in turn, affects the attainment of their own children.
Where we have community-concentrated poverty, those policies and approaches must start now to halt the progression of concentrated disadvantage before it increases. New policies must also recognise that tackling poverty in disadvantaged communities may require different, individual, and flexible approaches. In my opinion, one size rarely fits all. Many of our communities are ill-equipped and unprepared to deal with the needs of a growing and increasingly concentrated low-income population. Policies must therefore also increasingly look to a regional approach which is place-based, and which also ensures wide ownership and responsibility.
Given the limited resources at hand, we need integrated and cross-cutting approaches. Policymakers and practitioners can learn from regional leaders who are finding innovative ways to make limited resources stretch to confront the regional scale of poverty. These leaders are crafting approaches which work across urban and suburban boundaries and link decisions regarding housing, transportation, workforce development, and jobs, to forge strong connections between low-income residents and regional economic opportunity, regardless of location.
So, back to Ms Bishop, who, from her place of privilege in a government which continues to cut support from the most disadvantaged Australians, is sorry for “feeling she has let down Australians”. Ms Bishop’s use of public funds for private entertainment, use of a helicopter to take her to a party, are of no consequence when poverty becomes an obstacle to success even before a child is born, when children born into a community will be poor all their lives, when young people are going to school without breakfast, shoes, and books, or when teenagers have no expectation of employment or housing.
Ms Bishop and I are very lucky Australians indeed. We grew up in middle- or upper-class families, and learned to focus on the future and on our inherent potential. Children living in generational poverty grow up believing their present circumstances are determined by fate and factors beyond their control. Peter Norden, now adjunct professor of Global, Urban, & Social Studies at RMIT University, is quoted as saying:
Just like the challenge of Indigenous disadvantage, the alienation of whole communities within mainstream Australian society simply cannot be tolerated, especially in times of such obvious economic growth and prosperity. We need targeted coordinated action now from Federal and State governments, before these communities fall off the edge.
The research findings and subsequent report, Dropping off the Edge, is a scandal of epic proportions, and one which does require the focus of Australian people, governments of all persuasions, and media to pursue an equitable distribution of wealth for all Australians.
Major Jenny Begent is Divisional Social Program Secretary of the Salvation Army, Melbourne, and a Board member of Social Policy Connections.