The new Jesuit Social Services study Moving from the Edge is not a welfare tale of woe. It is a celebration of lives that have 'come good'. Individuals and families have spoken in a basically human way about their transition from being 'outsiders' to social 'insiders'. In the process we gain some important leads on different influences that have supported that journey.
But there is another fundamental lesson to be learned. We are witnessing the revival of an old, recurring criticism called welfare dependency. It goes something like this: there is a morally lax group of people who, given half a chance and in the absence of stern social controls, would happily sponge on society.
The predecessor report to this one, Dropping off the Edge, threw light on the real circumstances of many people needing help; it showed how within a small number of Australian communities people get caught in a web of disadvantage. Blaming these neighbourhoods, these people, for their entrapment achieves nothing. It is far more productive to build up the communities, provide opportunities for advancement and help demonstrate what it's possible to achieve.
The stories in Moving from the Edge are about individuals and families whose plight matches in severity that depicted in Dropping off the Edge. Despite overwhelming challenges these people have made their way to more satisfying and productive lives. Their stories are a reminder of the fact that with human courage and the support of others it is possible for people to 'turn around' ill-starred lives.
Frankly, I was deeply moved by the stories and I hope that reading them will have a similar affect on a wider audience, especially those who make social policy.
Overcoming the odds has in every instance involved external encouragement (from professionals in the field, partners, relatives, teachers, community groups) cultivating and supporting positive aspirations that lay within the people assisted, helping them to chart a path to the attainment of their goals and conveying confidence that the goals can and will be achieved.
Nothing that I heard moved me more than Candice and Louis's efforts to regain custody of their child Priscilla from the care of the state. Prior to that action being taken the lives of the parents had been directionless; their health was undermined by drug and alcohol dependence.
Sheer determination, the partners' affection for each other and their child, the help received with social housing, their trust in and appreciation of the service of the majority of the professionals from whom they obtained help, all contributed to their becoming a settled, functioning family. Resisting what they saw as the overwhelming discouragement of the child welfare authorities actually helped motivate their efforts.
The story of Kyleen's progressively greater inclusion in mainstream society is the story of her moving up the education ladder greatly supported by her fellow Aboriginal students and mentors.
Brian described his early life as being hopeless. He went on to say: 'I had nothing and not much to look forward to. I didn't know where my life was going. It was reckless. The stuff I was doing; (like) high speed chases. I had no real regard for life at that stage. That's a common feeling with criminals; like they're dangerous mate ... they've got nothing to live for.'
Yet today he is a fully qualified tradesman, settled with a partner and linked socially with upright people and relatives who have always conveyed trust in his ability to succeed. He might not have done that but for human service staff who have gently but purposefully helped him chart his way to the achievement of his goals — the latest of which is the planned purchase of a home.
Then there is June and her kids, who had the stuffing knocked out of them by the gruesome suicide at home of the children's father. From the depths of despair, and drawing upon the support of her worker and an inner-picture of the mother she needed to be, June has managed the admittedly shaky social integration of her children. Only time will tell whether she manages the same for herself.
And so the stories go. There has been a kind of social chemistry present in these lives that has encouraged success: relationships, both natural and professional, that have brought into play positive aspirations to be a 'social insider' and the devising of a road map leading to that goal; the encourager's shared conviction that the outsider's goals can and will be achieved; the availability of the material wherewithal to underwrite the change effort.
We should be profoundly grateful to those who have shared their stories with us. I hope that the lessons we learn from them will help ground social inclusion policy in the advantages of encouragement, guided reflection and careful planning instead of the compliance and income management measures that currently hold sway at the national level.
Read Brian's Story
Tony Vinson is Emeritus Professor at UNSW and Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney. His extensive experience researching social disadvantage culminated in the study Dropping Off the Edge in 2007. This article is an edited version of his speech at the launch of the follow-up volume, Moving From the Edge, which is available now from Jesuit Social Services.