When I first volunteered to help at Vinnies Kids Camps, I naively viewed the camps as not very different from the holiday camps I attended as a child. The activities were the same, we led the same chants, and the kids had fun in both instances. What has changed for me, after three years as a staff member, is learning how deeply the children on the Vinnies Camp needed a holiday. My understanding is greatly improved of the sorts of situations and home lives from which these children come.
I now listen differently to the children in Vinnies Camps. I remember a 12-year-old boy explaining, “It’s good to get away from it all”. At the time, I thought, it’s sad that a child has things he needs to get away from. He said his house was full of people, and that his older brother was a sloth and never left his room. He called his other brother ‘nomad’, as he would come and go. A colleague reported that an eight-year-old girl said her favourite part of camp was “the bed – I can sleep”.
The sad reality is that over 600,000 Aussie kids – 17.7 percent of all Australian children – are living in poverty. This statistic at first seems too high. But, many times, I have returned to the report by ACOSS, Poverty in Australia 2014, to confirm this statistic, hoping I’ve remembered it incorrectly – but there were the figures.
The children most neglected by society are those between the ages of eight and fourteen. Rarely are their experiences measured. Often, the parents receive support, and the children can easily be forgotten. One of the sharp side effects for children experiencing poverty is the social impact of not wearing the right brands of clothing, and being labeled ‘poor’ by the other kids in class.
The Australian Child Wellbeing report, Are the kids alright? Young Australians in their middle years (Associate PRofessor Gerry Redmond et al, Flinders University, February 2016), linked these feelings of shame to a negative association with school and education, which then affects their grades. Moreover, “adequate food and clothing are not only intrinsically important for young people; they are also instrumentally important for the capability achievement of education, and for young people’s development towards adulthood”.
The 2012 report from the University of New South Wales Research Centre, Making a Difference: Building on Young People’s Experiences of Economic Adversity, drew all its data from children actually experiencing disadvantage (as opposed to their parents or teachers). Surprisingly, this has rarely been done. The report found that “young people experiencing economic adversity respond by conserving their income, by saving their pocket money (if they have any), by seeking employment (if they can find it), and by supporting their parents so they can hold onto their jobs”.
These young people really want to go forward, and are working hard to do so. While they need support from many people in their community to achieve this, they don’t need others to do it for them. They need tools to step their way out of poverty, and support to learn to use these tools. They also need to be able to fit in by wearing the right clothes, to attend their friends’ key social events, and to have access to meals. Most importantly, all people in society need to feel they belong and that can contribute without being judged.
There is a key social injustice happening today. Our society doesn’t often provide a platform for children to speak, and, when it does, whether this is tokenistic. What would those 603,000 children say if they were given an opportunity to be heard? What do the rest of us need to do to provide that platform at a government level? How can we as individuals make a difference to the lives of these industrious children who sincerely want to be able to live a life free of poverty and the opportunity to contribute to society?
As I watch my nieces and nephews living their childhood, I can’t help but feel that the welfare of children must be a priority in our society. One day, the figure of 600,000 children living in poverty will be a sad historical fact, due to the hard work and efforts of many concerned individuals.
Change can happen when we work together.
Michael Walter is a board member of Social Policy Connections, and works for the St Vincent de Paul Society in the Youth & Education Team.