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The spider web of disadvantage


Cover of Dropping off the Edge 2015 report

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 most of the postcodes and regions that were identified in 2007 as the most highly disadvantaged remained so in 2015.

One of the most significant features of disadvantage is that is not simply a state in which you live but a process. It is like being trapped in a spider web where with each movement you are entangled with other threads. So it is important not to focus simply on each aspect of disadvantage but to examine the connection between them. So, for example, the effect of dropping out of school will be magnified if your parents are unemployed and you have come under the juvenile justice system. The combination of different aspects of disadvantage has a more deleterious effect than does the sum of the aspects taken singly.

It follows that those who live in areas marked by severe disadvantage will find it difficult to overcome the effects of disadvantage. It also means that projects in these areas will need to be coordinated so as to address the interlocking aspects of disadvantage, to be sustained for many years, and to engage the local community.

Ultimately disadvantage brings dislocation to all the relationships with others and with the world that nurture and give people the skills and confidence to connect with society. To overcome it demands strengthening the web of relationships, particularly in the local community. Unless programs resource the local community so that it owns what is done within it and takes initiatives to encourage change, growth to connection will not be sustained.

Reflection on the social reality of disadvantage shows that it is destructive to blame individuals for their failure to study, work and be economically productive. It is even more destructive to punish them for the consequences of their disadvantage. They need help to escape from the cycle of disadvantage.

Disadvantage has identifiable social roots and must be addressed in a coordinated and reflective way. It is very costly in its effect on human lives, as well as in the costs incurred through hospitals and prisons of the failure to address it. Its persistence over eight years in the same regions shows that to address it will require sustained government funding and flexible coordination.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, inequality, disadvantage, Tony Vinson, social welfare, poverty



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Existing comments

Such an insightful article. The last five paragraphs in particular should be pinned up on the corkboard of anyone involved in social work policy advocacy or in helping individuals caught up in 'the spider web of disadvantage' . How true this all is, I know from personal acquaintance. Thanks, Fr Andy.

Tony kevin | 21 July 2015  

Your compassion is revealed through your words Andy. And also through your experience in working with disadvantaged people. There's a particular joy in helping someone who really needs your attention, your focus and your help. If only governments could see that this is primarily what society should be about. It should be about looking deeply into problems in areas where disadvantage is entrenched and about putting human resources where they are most needed. Money helps but much more effective are offers of friendship and mentoring. Our measure of success as a country should not be about per capita income or gross domestic product but about how opportunities to study and work can be created for those who face difficult situations.

Pam | 21 July 2015  

I came from a privileged upbringing but married a non-indigenous Forgotten Australian. Our life long effects to overcome his childhood institutional abuse failed, despite four of us getting multiple university degrees. Four out of five of us are on disability. Instead of taking children from abusive and neglectful parents, take the whole family and help them. Stolen children never recover, and their partners and children are scarred for life.

ForgottenAustralianFamily | 21 July 2015  

Great research, no doubt, but what it reminds us is the failure to respond whether to the findings in 2008 or those of the Henderson report. The Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services, amongst others, that profess concern with such data, data that they know almost by heart, cannot just produce the report, call for a bit of this and a bit of that. There is the need to interrogate what the true implications of the research are, and what it means for well meaning individuals - doing good is not enough, finding ways to champion and drive structural reform is required. Eureka Street should lead a discussion on much more radical options - what has been presented and what the Jesuit Social Services, Catholic Social Services and others have accepted has failed.

Tom | 21 July 2015  

It is a bit hard to address ingrained social disadvantage with the amount of resources and the sort of tools that federal and state governments, often with one eye on the bottom line and another on short term political advantage via newsbites, usually have. A practical case in point was the federal government's decision to cut funding to the unique integrated pharmacy run by cohealth in Collingwood, Melbourne where GP, pharmacy and other medical services are brought together. http://cohealth.org.au/ It was only pressure by Adam Bandt, the local federal MP on Susan Ley, the Minister for Health, which resulted in her committing to work with cohealth to ensure the continuation of this unique service. The cohealth model of providing coordinated health services in the Northern, Western and Central Melbourne areas, including a series of short term residential centres called PARCs for people with mental health issues to help them get their lives together and help prevent breakdown and long term hospitalisation should be a model for the rest of Australia. Of course these sort of services cost money, but as a respected psychologist I once worked with said, if you don't provide the money and resources at this stage it will cost you lots more later.

Edward Fido | 23 July 2015  

Great words, thank you. I've just read Jacques Maritain's The Person and the Common Good and your message, loud and clear, resonates with this. You point really to where our society itself is dropping off the edge. Again, thank you. Let's get doing.

Margaret | 23 July 2015  

Spot on, as usual. What do we do next? What's currently working? How can we connect better with each other? How can we re-learn the principles of community development, without which we rely too much on government funding and become little more than government tools, to be dropped when the electoral cycle allows it? As for making a government listen to what this report is saying - it's not going to happen.

Joan Seymour | 24 July 2015  

I can understand why some of the social programs should be cut when they become too comfy with government funding (like the emplyoment agencies run by the social wings of churches). I looked up the website of one of them recently, and in the section on job search advice, they listed the obvious commercial job ad websites! Thanks!

AURELIUS | 27 July 2015  

I haven't caught up with the recent report, but read the 2007 and earlier reports by Prof Vinson for JSS / CSSA. Very enlightening, especially findings regarding the positive impact of “social cohesion” on disadvantage. IE, the real, measurable impact of contact of young people with neighbours who have a job, education and a stable relationships, ranking only behind the impact of parents and teachers. So, there appears to be statistical proof (or at least strong evidence) that local participation in community influences neighbourhood disadvantage for the better. Surely a very positive endorsement of the potential of parishes to make a concrete difference. The Catholic parish network is probably still the largest community organisation in Australia, and with a systematic approach (such as that of Cardijn Community Australia, YCW, YCS etc) to the gospel question "who is my neighbour?" ordinary people at the grass roots might make a substantial difference. Before we just habitually blame “government”, or look to welfare organisations, shouldn’t we first look to what we as Christians might do – in fact lead – ourselves. (I was surprised however by what I thought was a glaring failure in the 2007 report – its non-consideration of marriage breakdown amongst a long list of potential symptoms and no doubt causes of disadvantage.)

David Moloney | 04 August 2015  

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