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Life chances: policy must respond to the real lives of young people

Whether you grow up in public housing flats or the leafy suburbs makes a difference, but it need not set children’s destiny in stone. AAP/Dean Lewins

Life is unpredictable. Individual lives are complicated and this seems to be a problem for policy makers. It is important our understanding of the life course is reflected effectively in policy so that appropriate opportunities and supports can be provided for all.

The policy challenges include responding to the realities rather than the public images of young people. There is a need to recognise the extent to which different families can support their members and to appreciate the interaction of individual, social and economic factors over time.

In 1990, the Brotherhood of St Laurence began following the lives of 167 babies. The study’s aim was to see how, as the children grew, their opportunities were affected by their family finances and employment and by access to housing, education, health care and social support. We wanted to look at the lives of children born in the same place at the same time – two Melbourne inner suburbs – but to very diverse families, and ask about their “life chances”.

Their stories not only show that poverty is bad for families and for children but illustrate the interaction of stress and deprivation. Yet they also demonstrate the considerable resilience of the families and individuals, as well as the importance of the support they have received from our framework of social and community services.

We have conducted 10 stages of interviews for the Life Chances Study, most recently when the young people were 21. The reports are available on the Brotherhood of St Laurence website.)

The research has led to a new book, Life Chances: stories of growing up in Australia. This offers an in-depth look at five families, following their lives through the 21 years from the birth of their child in 1990.

Debbie’s story

The experiences of “Debbie” and her family illustrate some of the unpredictable aspects of life and its possibilities.

Debbie started life as a baby on the 20th floor of high-rise flats. She was the youngest of four children in a sole-parent family with possible child protection issues. Her parents both had very disadvantaged childhoods.

Debbie’s story follows her family’s move to public housing in a country town and her parents’ struggle to stabilise and settle over the years. Debbie left school early and was injured in a car smash.

In spite of this setback, at 21 she was flourishing, working full-time as a manager with six staff reporting to her. She had just had an overseas holiday – the first ever in her family to do so. And, at 22, she was on the way to buying her own home.

So how unpredictable is life? While Debbie’s story and a number of others are tales of resilience, the study also found patterns that give less cause for optimism.

For example, on average, young people who have grown up in low-income families were less likely to attend university than those who grow up in high-income families. But, while the proportion may be smaller, there are those from low-income families who do get to university. Again, on average, early school leavers may have more trouble finding employment, but we have examples of those like Debbie who can flourish.

The study shows that family background matters for young people, but so do the social supports available for the families as they raise their children.

Amy’s story

The stories in Life Chances illustrate lives disrupted by unemployment, by work injuries and ill health. Stress over inadequate income could lead to severe family conflict, as in Amy’s family.

Life Chances illustrates life’s complexity, but also the simple fact that poverty hurts families. Janet Taylor/Federation Press

“Amy” grew up in a low-income Chinese family in Melbourne. Her mother was isolated by her lack of English. The family’s troubles intensified when her father become unemployed during the early 1990s recession. He turned to gambling and drinking, which in turn led to violence.

Amy at 21 remembered:

My parents got divorced when I was in Prep and my dad was a gambler. So we didn’t really have anything at all because Dad took everything to sell.

Public housing and a sole parent pension provided crucial supports for Amy’s mother in raising Amy on her own. But lack of money remained a problem and school costs were a burden. Nonetheless Amy’s mother was very keen for Amy to have a good education and used facilities such as local libraries. In time, Amy attended a good local high school and then university, although costs were still a stress. Not all young people from disadvantaged backgrounds do well but neither are all destined for a life of intergenerational deprivation. The stories point to the crucial role of financial resources in providing opportunities and shaping life chances. Who went without food; what holidays did the children have; who felt excluded; what does “choice” of school really mean?

The more affluent families also faced challenges, but theirs differed from the daily stresses of inadequate income.

Some challenges for policy makers

A key issue is how to assess how much support families can offer young people. Many, but not all, families can provide crucial support to young people, financial or emotional.

In the Life Chances Study, 80% of 21-year-olds in high-income families received financial help from their parents in contrast to 19% in low-income families. Another 19% of 21-year-olds in low-income families were actually providing financial support rather than receiving it, giving substantial help to ill or unemployed parents. Others had little or no support following parental deaths, separations and conflict.

Policy should not rely on the false assumption that all young people have parents able to help them. We know some can turn to families for support, others cannot.

The Life Chances stories highlight the extent of the diversity, continuity and change both within families and within the wider society. It is critical that policies recognise the role of gender, ethnicity, health and location in shaping young people’s opportunities. The policy challenge is to understand and respond to the complex interplay of social, economic and individual factors over time.

Among the critical policy issues for young people and their families are: adequate income support for unemployed and sole parents; the impact of unemployment and employment on families; the importance of affordable housing; the availability of health and disability services; school and training costs; support for youth transitions and career choice; refugee settlement and growing up in a multi-ethnic society.

There are no simple policy solutions to complex problems. But families and young people do suffer unnecessarily from poverty and social exclusion. Their suffering could be reduced by better investment by our society in the life chances of all Australians.

See the rest of the Another Country: Youth in Australia series here.

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