An eight-year-old boy is often hungry, but knows if he tells his mum, she will eat less herself and go hungry. He hates the thought, so he stays quiet.
An 11-year-old girl knows once rent is paid, there is almost nothing left over, so she tries not to ask for too much. She never takes school excursion notes home in case the cost is too much.
A 10-year-old boy’s dad has been angry since he was injured at work; he can no longer support his family, and awaits compensation. It makes this boy feel sad, but he understands and tries not to add to his dad’s stress.
This is how children have described their experiences of poverty in research I have done over several years.
These help buffer children from the effects of poverty – but none can address its structural drivers, or the ways systems fail many people.
Decades after then prime minister Bob Hawke declared that by 1990, “no Australian child will live in poverty”, the problem remains very real in Australia.
So what is that experience like for children, and what needs to be done?
Three key themes
First, not having the material basics – enough food, a safe and secure home, transport - is a near-constant problem for far too many children.
Some of these things can be bought if money is sufficient, but some – like secure housing and transport – require investment in public infrastructure and equal distribution of resources. These are structural problems, not individual ones.
My colleagues and I have found children are more likely to talk about the importance of food than toys or electronic devices. Hunger shapes priorities powerfully.
Second, poverty limits children’s ability to participate in activities and services (such as sport, public library time and health care).
This can be due to families not having the money – but often the barriers are, once again, structural. Schools in low-income areas are often under-resourced, playgrounds are less likely to be maintained, services are limited, and public transport is inadequate.
Third, relationships are deeply affected by the pressures poverty creates. This is exacerbated by factors such as:
- low income
- punitive conditions placed on welfare recipients (such as needing to attend playgroups and parenting classes or job interviews)
- insecure work
- housing stress
- unaffordable costs of living.
For children, time with the people they love – particularly parents – is always a priority. Poverty eats away at that time.
A culture of shame
Another, perhaps even more harmful, theme has emerged in Australia over recent decades – the discourse around poverty often attaches blame and stigma to individuals.
Anyone deemed to be part of the “undeserving poor” is shamed. Children experience this in the names targeted at them, their families and communities. Policy settings around welfare can be unbelievably punitive.
As a society, we are diminished by this blaming and shaming rhetoric. It undermines our ability to care for others, and to recognise the value of care.
6 changes needed now
There is no quick fix, but here are six changes that would help immediately.
1. Boost welfare benefits
Children in families dependent on working-age benefits will grow up in income poverty. Children in single-parent (usually single mum) families dependent on income support are most likely to be in poverty. The policy response is clear – we must raise the rate of working age benefits and reform the child support system.
2. Recognise the importance of strong and supportive relationships
Relationships are crucial to children but undue pressure on parents – through welfare conditions or child-unfriendly, insecure working conditions – undermines those relationships.
Some countries, such as New Zealand, are undertaking child impact assessments, which aim to work out whether a given policy proposal will improve the wellbeing of children and young people.
Australia should do similar assessments of all policies, particularly those linked to social security and labour markets.
3. Build child-friendly communities
As governments respond to the housing crisis through greater numbers of social housing it is critical we adhere to principles of child-friendly communities.
This means providing safe, welcoming places for children to play, building footpaths so children can easily and safely get around, creating communal, child-inclusive spaces to bring people together across generations, and creating child-friendly services close to home.
4. Reform education funding
Education funding must be more equitable, and ensure all children can access and enjoy high-quality schooling.
5. Change the narratives and language around poverty
We must recognise poverty is not the fault of the individual. Debates and policies should be based on empathy, not blame.
6. Put children at the centre of policy
This could include approaches like the European Child Guarantee, which aims to guarantee every child access to essential services.