What is it like to grow up poor in Australia? We learnt something about this from a recent Four Corners program investigating the experiences and perspectives of children from the disadvantaged Sydney suburb of Claymore.
The program made compelling and also upsetting viewing. The children’s focus was not so much on the material things that they miss out on, but on their longing for security, safety and happiness in their homes and wider environment.
Many were acutely conscious of the fragility of their circumstances, and felt the impact of living with chaos and violence. Their stories are a powerful reminder that growing up in fear and anger does not make a healthy start to life.
But many of the children also impressed with their wisdom and insights.
On a similar note, the Life Chances Study, which has followed a cohort of young people since their births in Melbourne during a six-month period in 1990, also provides plenty of reminders that many Australians grow up without the opportunities and support that others take for granted.
I’ve profiled the study, its most recent findings (just released by the Brotherhood of St Laurence), and some of its subjects in this article for Inside Story (the story was jointly funded by Australian Policy Online).
Meanwhile, in the article below, Dr Vanessa Rose, who has longstanding experience of working with disadvantaged communities, argues that as well as other interventions to address social and economic disadvantage, measures are needed to help improve individuals’ sense of control over their lives.
And beneath her post is a link to a recent UNICEF report investigating child poverty in Australia and other wealthy countries.
What might help the children of Claymore
Vanessa Rose writes:
In the midst of the Four Corners episode on children living in the public housing estate of Claymore (Growing up poor, ABC 2, 25th September), somewhere between the holes in the wall housing and the bare social dysfunction was the teenager Damian explaining why he may not wish to work in the future: ‘the boss always yells at you if you do the wrong thing’, he said.
Work to this teenager afforded another way to be rejected. Work was a risk probably not worth taking.
Claymore was ranked the most disadvantaged suburb in Sydney in the 2006 census and this statistic is unlikely to have changed.
Socioeconomic status (of both individuals and communities) is a strong predictor of health. People living in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities have higher rates of physical and mental health morbidity and mortality than people living in more affluent suburbs; and even more than those living in slightly more affluent suburbs as the income health link rises in a stepped gradient.
Health is widely understood to be a product of both context and composition: context referring to proximal (and sometimes distal) environmental conditions such as the quality of housing and level of safety in neighbourhoods and composition referring to factors within the group or individual, subsuming everything from genetic and disease vulnerabilities to unhealthy dietary behaviours.
Less well understood, at least in the public health arena, is the role of psychological control in health: the way in which socioeconomic disadvantage manifests in personal beliefs and agency.
Studies posit different pathways between deprivation and health at the individual level including: psychosocial stressors, coping abilities, depression and anxiety, and even subjective social status. This last factor, a measure of how people rank their perceived social status in comparison to others, speaks to something of the psychological nature of socioeconomic disadvantage; of the way it functions in constructing perceptions of opportunity.
The work-shy teenager in Claymore has little belief in his own ability to influence the future. He has little hope that the world will be one in which he has much control or say.
This is why measures to improve the lives of the disadvantaged must not only address the social determinants of health (starting in the case of Claymore with the physical redevelopment of the estate) – they must also assist individuals to experience and master increasing levels of control over their environment and future.
This means investment in structured, long-term strengths-based programs focused on resilience and enablement.
• Dr Vanessa Rose is Project Manager, Communities & Populations, Centre for Health Equity Training Research & Evaluation, part of theUNSW Research Centre for Primary Health Care & Equity
A Big Economy or a Civilised Society?
Meanwhile, Wayne Swan and co are crowing today about the size of our economy.
Surely, it’s not just the size that counts, but also how fairly the pickings are distributed. Perhaps the most important measure of a society is whether all children have a good start to life.
As Janet Taylor, a researcher who has been involved with the Life Chances Study since its inception, puts it, the key question raised at this landmark stage in the study’s history is: “It’s about, what sort of society do we want to live in? As a society, how can we give all our kids every opportunity?”
It’s a question that has been left hanging for too many children. As this recent UNICEF report makes clear, Australia could be doing much more to help the children of Claymore and beyond.
The report quotes Sharon Goldfeld, National Director of the Australian Early Development Index, saying that: “In a downturn, the first thing that happens is that children drop off the policy agenda.”
Yet the report says the child poverty rate is arguably one of the most important of all indicators of a society’s health and well-being:
“For the here and now, it is a measure of what is happening to some of society’s most vulnerable members. For the years to come, it is a pointer to the well-being and cohesion of society as a whole.
Previous reports in this series have presented the evidence for the close association between child poverty and a long list of individual and social risks – from impaired cognitive development to increased behavioural difficulties, from poorer physical health to underachievement in school, from lowered skills and aspirations to higher risks of welfare dependency, from the greater likelihood of teenage pregnancy to the increased probability of drug and alcohol abuse. That there are many exceptions – many children who grow up in economically poor families who do not fall into any of these categories – does not alter the fact that poverty in childhood is closely and consistently associated with measurable disadvantage both for individuals and for the societies in which they live.
A commitment to protecting children from poverty is therefore more than a slogan or a routine inclusion in a political manifesto; it is the hallmark of a civilized society.”
There are no shortage of reports documenting the tough start that many Australian children have to life; perhaps we need to hear more of the stories behind those statistics, if we are to become a healthier society.