For many Australians, 2020 began with muted New Year’s Eve celebrations as a mark of respect for the many communities impacted by the devastating bushfires. At that time, we had little awareness of COVID-19 and the dramatic economic and social impacts it would bring just a couple of months on. As the year began, 1.2 million young Australians – or one in six – were living in poverty. That rate has remained relatively unchanged in recent years.
The life consequences for children living in poverty are well known: poorer health, educational and employment outcomes, poorer wellbeing and increased reliance on welfare and other services. These children are more likely to start school behind in areas critical for educational success. At age 15, they’re likely to be three years behind their more affluent peers, and post-school, they’re less likely to be in work or further study.
Despite their families’ best efforts, creating a home learning environment in which they can thrive is a struggle for many. Having limited financial resources affects families in so many ways, including reducing access to some of the fundamental tools of education such as books, stationery and digital technology. Limited physical space at home makes finding a quiet place to study impossible, and parents’ confidence to support their child’s learning is often rocky, influenced perhaps by their own experience of school, their poor health, lack of safety, unfamiliarity with the Australian schooling system or English not being their first language.
The extent to which COVID-19 may have increased the number of Australian children and young people living in poverty is unknown at this stage, but many fear it will be deep and long lasting. In an unprecedented national response, governments, schools, corporates and non-government organisations are working to limit the pandemic’s impact on the education of vulnerable children.
A number of these efforts have focused on providing access to digital technology and resources to support online learning at home. The digital divide – a reality for significant numbers of Australian children prior to COVID-19 – has taken on a new significance. Welcome as these efforts to increase access are, we need to ensure that providing affordable digital access at home and supporting young people to develop the capability to use technology remain long term focuses.
To provide a high school child living in poverty with a laptop during COVID-19 only to remove it when the crisis is over would be a travesty. Whatever the ‘new normal’ is post COVID-19, enhanced digital capability and access to technology for all young people must be part of it. This must be achieved through coordinated and systemic responses.
But the short and medium-term impacts of COVID-19 for children living in poverty aren’t just a consequence of their limited access to digital technology. If this was the case, then our short and longer-term responses might be relatively straightforward. These children’s lives are much more complex and COVID-19 adds yet another challenge that can impact on their educational and life outcomes.
Children living in poverty face multiple issues, such as unstable housing brought about by high rental costs. They live in families where uncertainty about how they’ll pay for utilities like gas and electricity contributes to palpable and unhealthy levels of tension. Many are living in families where there are major health or disability issues.
Four in five of the financially disadvantaged young people The Smith Family supports on our long-term educational scholarship program, Learning for Life, live in a family where someone has a major health or disability issue. This increases their level of risk relating to COVID-19 and the proportion of their family’s modest budget which needs to be spent on health expenses, further reducing what is available for educational expenses.
Thousands of families who are trying to support their child’s learning at home are now supported in varying ways by schools and other organisations. Many, perhaps most parents are finding this challenging, regardless of their child’s age. But for parents living in poverty it is particularly hard. Their homes have more limited indoor and outdoor space; they tend to feel less confident about their capacity to help their children’s learning and are anxious that they’ll be judged because of that; have few if any savings to pay for unexpected costs such as a desk; and have more limited networks of support than other families to draw on.
All of these factors compound and make children living in poverty at even greater risk educationally because of COVID-19. What we know from Australian and international evidence about what works to support disadvantaged children’s education is now even more important, if we are to ensure that they don’t fall even further behind. This includes:
Just as we began the new year with deep compassion for Australians experiencing the horror of the bushfires, we can only hope our shared experience of COVID-19 increases our empathy for those living in poverty. Empathy can lead to action and a concerted national effort to reduce child poverty would make us a better country.