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Breaking the back of persistent disadvantage

Some would like to paint poverty in Australia in ever-simplistic terms. Image sourced from

On weekdays, around 40 school-aged children from public housing estates in Fitzroy, Melbourne, attend a breakfast club organised by the Brotherhood of St Laurence. The room is always busy, as milk and sandwiches are dispensed and pancakes flipped. The modest initiative has proved a boon for children, mostly recently arrived African refugees.

Teachers from local schools anecdotally report that the children who participate in the program are more alert and responsive in the classroom and have better attendance rates. It underscores how small but sustained investments can make a difference to the lives of people who are deeply excluded from society.

On a larger canvas, the Productivity Commission report into disadvantage highlights more than ever the need for greater government investment in Australians living in the margins.

The report found “deep and persistent” disadvantage continues to affect the lives of a small group of Australians despite a general improvement in living standards for many Australians over the last decade.

Disadvantage is shown to be more than simply life on a low income – it involves a lack of opportunities and social exclusion. For these reasons it is also difficult to measure.

The report emphasises the need to not only focus on the depth of disadvantage, but also the dynamics – that is, how it changes over time. While around 5% of Australians are estimated to have experienced deep social exclusion, fewer experience it for more than five years. Only 1% of the population experiences very deep exclusion, or deep exclusion for more than seven years.

The report finds a range of intersecting and compounding factors at the root of disadvantage. Our environment – broader social and economic structures interplay and the community in which we live intersects with individual biographies - negative life events, family circumstances and individual capacities. This supports the Brotherhood’s research which shows if your environment is characterised by income poverty, uncertainty, violence and lack of decent housing, schools and resources, not to mention a nutritious breakfast - it will have a lasting impact upon your wellbeing and your longer-term life chances.

Some would like to paint poverty in Australia in ever-simplistic terms, distorting the findings of the Productivity Commission to make exaggerated links between genes and life chances. That, of course, will serve the purposes of creating a tabloid headline. But the reality is the causes of disadvantage in our prosperous country are multi-dimensional and mutually reinforcing, creating a vicious cycle in the lives of some people. The relevant question for us all should therefore be “how to break the cycles of disadvantage”?

The Productivity Commission report draws on the Social Exclusion monitor to suggest that while most people who experience disadvantage are able to move out of poverty reasonably quickly - a large number of Australians find themselves on the margins and a smaller number are trapped in deep poverty over longer periods. This is despite our record economic growth. These deeply disadvantaged groups include those reliant on income support, the unemployed, lone parents and their children, Indigenous Australians, people with a long-term health condition or disability, and people with low educational attainment.

These findings are cause for concern - but they should not invoke despair. Instead, we need policy initiatives that address how we create a society in which our children are offered the same chances regardless of their postcode or family background.

Here, the Productivity Commission points to three key areas: the importance of children’s early years in shaping their life chances; the fundamental importance of education in shaping the trajectory of young people’s lives into the future and the importance of jobs as a pathway out of poverty for many people of working age.

Understanding that disadvantage involves intertwined issues across the course of a person’s life therefore requires solutions that are innovative and intersecting - or “joined up”.

In the early years, for example, we know that affordable access to high quality early childhood education and care services can improve family economic and social stability, as well as educational outcomes and life chances. Australia’s comparatively high rate of income poverty and inequality among children, and our low numbers of three and four-year-olds enrolled in early education, indicates work still needed to ensure Australian children do not fall further behind.

But growing numbers of young people are also disengaging from school and finding themselves unable to link into work or further study. Re-engaging these highly disadvantaged young people requires investing in programs tailored to recognise their strengths and meet their learning, wellbeing and other needs: that means more money for TAFE, not slashing funding.

The Productivity Commission’s report also highlights the importance of employment. The truth is the mainstream employment services system is broken when it comes to steering the most disadvantaged into work. We need more flexible and responsive services providing better pathways to work - that includes serious investment in skills development and harnessing employers in the quest for work. The inadequacy of income support payments also has very real consequences, forcing people into poverty and making it harder, not easier, for people to find employment and support their families.

The causes of deep disadvantage are complex - but there are ways forward. Short and longer term solutions require political leadership and investment.

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