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The spider web of disadvantage

  • 23 July 2015

Suburbs and equity are topical this week. One report showed that affluent suburbs benefited more from the last Federal budgets than did poor suburbs. That is hardly surprising. Another report brought up to date a ground-breaking 2007 analysis that identified the most disadvantaged suburbs and regions in Australia.

Both these reports challenge the economic orthodoxies professed by all governments today. They identify a person’s worth with their economic contribution. They minimise the importance of communities for personal well-being, see public funding of social programs as an anomaly, and stigmatise individuals as losers and parasites for their failure to participate in the economy.

Governments that lean towards this view are likely to cut the public service without asking what they need from it for good policy and administration, and to reward the economically successful and punish with financial penalties and reporting requirements individuals who do not connect with society. When governments must respond to public pressure to meet some social need, they will do it through over-hyped short term programs that are narrowly targeted at single aspects of the need.

Such programs inevitably fail to live up to their hype and confirm the view that social funding is a waste of money. This leads to more cuts to the public services, less attention to disadvantaged community to more intervention and punishment for people who do not contribute, and to even less interest in why people are disadvantaged.

That is why the publication of Dropping off the Edge 2015, which extends a 2007 study and compares its findings with today, is so timely. The report, which is a joint initiative of Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services Australia, shows how and where people are disadvantaged, how their disadvantage that hinders them from participating in society can be addressed, and why flexible government coordination of programs is essential.

The study identifies many aspects of disadvantage that can be measured and demonstrably hinder people from making their way in life. They cover such things as access to the internet, housing stress, family income, level of education and post-school qualifications, skills, engagement in study or work, readiness for school, eligibility for disability support, unemployment benefits and rent assistance, numeracy and reading at Year 3 and Year 9, child maltreatment, juvenile and criminal convictions, domestic violence, and prison and mental health admissions.

Using these criteria the study was able to rank postcodes and regions in order of disadvantage. It found that