The durability of poverty

From Collingwood to Kew, and from Redfern to Baulkam Hills, there are larger divides than a road or a river. Communities in New South Wales and Victoria are often defined by their position on the socio-economic ladder.

Disadvantage is strongly correlated with location according to the Community Adversity and Resilience research report recently released by the Ignatius Centre, the policy and research arm of Jesuit Social Services.

The report, authored by Emeritus Professor Tony Vinson, indicates that the negative effects of social adversity in Australia are heavily concentrated in particular areas, defining these people’s opportunities throughout their lives. The report aims to provide data to policy makers about the location of social disadvantage in Australian society and to contribute to research into the influence of place on poverty and social disadvantage.

Community Adversity and Resilience builds on earlier research by Jesuit Social Services in 1999, Unequal in Life. The findings of the new report echoed those of Unequal in Life, concluding that a small number of communities in Victoria and NSW were over-represented in the figures for early school leaving, unemployment, crime, low income, low labour market skills and child maltreatment. Unlike its predecessor, the new report examines the mediating role of social cohesion in assisting communities to overcome disadvantage and its attendant consequences.

The report explores the concept of community resilience—a sense of mutual responsibility and commitment that encourages communities to work together to overcome the problems that stem from social disadvantage. The report identifies those communities that function better, those that have a sense of control over their destiny and strong community leadership.

‘Now that we have the benchmarks from 1999, it’s very clear that disadvantage is remarkably durable. It hasn’t changed to any large extent at all since 1999 and the situation is as it was even 25 years ago. So it’s not going to go away without special effort’, says Vinson.

‘In areas where there is a measurable degree of social cohesion then there is the possibility of the harmful consequences of conditions like unemployment, incomplete education, low work skills, and low income being held in check by communities working together.’

Jesuit Social Services’ Policy Director Fr Peter Norden, says that politically, parties are keen to match each other regarding important social issues as we move towards a Federal election later this year. As one party makes promises, the other is ready to pounce. ‘A bipartisan approach is needed to address these critical issues’, he says.

Tony Vinson believes that serious social problems could be addressed more easily if governments were to head the findings of the report.

‘I think that politically, the most important thing is that governments are aware that there’s quite a concentration of serious social disadvantage in a small number of places.’

‘We know that the criminal justice system is involved in ever more intensive mining of these very same locations, the same suburbs, but building more prisons is not the answer.’

Vinson’s understanding of the criminal justice system reflects years of experience. At 22 he was the youngest parole officer in Australia, working at Longbay Jail, Australia’s largest prison. He’s worked as a psychologist, in social work, education and has studied justice systems in Australia and internationally. During his studies at The Hague, Tony had the opportunity to analyse the Swedish and Dutch judicial systems and this gave him an understanding of how things could be better handled in Australia.

‘I’ve had the chance to see what really progressive systems are like. Australia would do well to aspire to the civilised way prison systems are run in those countries. They don’t just rely upon the prison system as the first way of dealing with social problems. There, prisons are used as a measure of last resort and their prisons preserve a degree of normalcy.’

Prior to the release of the report, both Tony Vinson and Peter Norden have had the opportunity to meet with Federal Ministers and the leaders of the Labor Opposition, and senior Public Servants in both Sydney and Melbourne to discuss the research findings.

Vinson says that the report places the onus on policy makers to focus on specific regions. In some locations for example, young people do not have the protection of, or exposure to, positive adult influences.

During media coverage of the recent Redfern riot, Opposition Leader Mark Latham questioned where the parents of those young people involved were. The answer, according to Senator Aden Ridgeway, was that many parents were in jail, or fighting mental illness, and that many young Indigenous people are being raised by extended family.

In discussing the report, Vinson explains that instead of simply listing the most disadvantaged areas, as in the 1999 Unequal In Life report, Community Adversity and Resilience features a classification system to avoid furthering the stigma often associated with particular regions.

The information underpinning the research was gathered from state government departments in Victoria and New South Wales, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Vinson is well aware that the report has the potential to be inflammatory, and that the stigma attached to being listed in ‘the bottom five’ communities could incite further problems. He well knows  how some government policies seem to preserve a bad situation rather than preventing them. Vinson describes such policies as ‘criminogenic’ as a culture of social problems is perpetuated by the punitive measures used to respond to them. The current methods of incarceration and punishment are one such example as the justice system is not intercepting criminals, but creating them.

In order for disadvantaged communities to benefit in the future, Vinson believes that developing health and education services is the best starting point.

‘If you apply the scales of disadvantage to particular portfolios, one question you might ask, for example, is “Is bulk billing available for these most disadvantaged areas?”.’

Similarly, providing better educational options for young people and encouraging them to complete secondary school would mean that they are less likely to enter the poverty cycle.

‘Nothing better predicts what’s going to happen to you than the number of years you stay in school.’

The Community Adversity and Resilience report is available to policy makers and is likely to be valuable to a broader inquiry into poverty which could well follow the forthcoming Federal election.

The report supports the suggestion that Australia is, in general, more prosperous than it was even ten years ago, but that not all people share the benefits, and some will not benefit at all unless specific localised responses are made.

Peter Norden, concludes: ‘If for the first time in Australia’s history, one’s destiny might be shaped by one’s location, or even one’s postcode, it might be time to rethink some of the rules of the game’.

Beth Doherty is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.



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