Opinion article

Young Australians and disadvantage: disrupting the cycle

Following the release of Disrupting disadvantage: setting the scene, CEDA is releasing a series of articles from leading thinkers in the field that explore different aspects of disadvantage in Australia. The Smith Family Head of Research and Advocacy, Anne Hampshire, discusses new ways of approaching disadvantage among young Australians that could help break the intergenerational cycle.

CEDA’s new report, Disrupting disadvantage: setting the scene, is the latest to highlight that at least 700,000 adult Australians are experiencing deep and persistent disadvantage. That’s a lot of Australians – about twice the population of Newcastle, three times that of Hobart and seven times that of Ballarat and Rockhampton. Regrettably, it is not a new story; thirty per cent of Australians in poverty in 2001 were still in poverty 15 years later.
Particularly disturbing is the fact that more than 1.1 million young Australians are living in poverty. Despite Australia’s universal health care system, significant investment in services and supports, and the best efforts of many parents striving to create a better life for their children, intergenerational disadvantage is still a reality for many young Australians.
We cannot hope to address entrenched disadvantage without improving outcomes for young Australians. As research from the Melbourne Institute puts it, “Young adults’ fortunes are closely linked to those of the families into which they are born,” with intergenerational disadvantage most evident where there is health-related parental disadvantage.
Recent research with young Australians shows that those who experience more severe disadvantage are less able to engage and participate in school and report lower levels of life satisfaction, less positivity about the future and feel less safe than their peers. The link between child poverty and poor educational outcomes highlights that its impact reaches well into the future.
Disadvantage affects an individual’s ability to afford essential goods and services for themselves and their children, and to participate in society in the ways that most of us take for granted. A sense of being excluded from other Australians is, understandably, a common consequence of this kind of disadvantage.
However, the impacts go beyond the individual and their family. Disadvantage creates significant costs through increased health and welfare expenditure, a more limited human capital pool for the nation to draw on and perhaps most disturbingly, reduced community cohesion and wellbeing. In the short and longer term, entrenched disadvantage hurts all of us.
The scale, impact and intractability of disadvantage in Australia calls for ‘disruption’, particularly for children living in disadvantage. Whether we are driven by pragmatism or compassion, we need to take concerted action. 
To make progress on this issue, we need to urgently shift our collective mindset. Fifty per cent of respondents in a recent ABC poll agreed with the statement: “In Australia, anyone who works hard enough can get out of poverty.” It is an enticing idea – and it may be true for some – but it does not reflect the lived experience of many Australians in deep disadvantage. 
The Smith Family works in partnership with thousands of disadvantaged parents and carers each year to support their children to achieve educationally. Parents like Lynette, a single mum with four children, whose eldest daughter Jordan was in and out of hospital for eight months or so. Lynette’s limited financial resources, available time and networks, means it is not possible for her to “work hard enough” to help Jordan through the many challenges that she and her family are experiencing.
The fact is most Australians enjoy a good standard of living and have not met someone like Lynette. In this context, it is understandable that many people believe disadvantaged individuals should be responsible for “working their way out” of disadvantage. But for Lynette and many others like her, hard work is not enough.
To make real progress on addressing entrenched disadvantage, we also need to improve the educational outcomes of children living in poverty. The link between educational attainment and improved life circumstances is well known. The gap in educational attainment that persists between advantaged and disadvantaged young Australians at every key educational milestone, including their involvement post-school in work or study, suggests we have a long way to go in this area.
Some of the ways we can reduce the educational gap include:
  • An early intervention approach: identifying families early on, who need additional support to help their children achieve educationally, before challenges become entrenched.
  • Respectfully engaging with those parents over the long-term so that they can play a role in their child’s learning. Parental engagement in children’s learning is a bigger predictor of educational outcomes than socioeconomic background.
  • Supporting these families to access the support they need in a timely, targeted and seamless way. This will require enhanced collaboration and different ways of working across a range of organisations and sectors.
  • More comprehensive and longitudinal evaluation of policies and programs that aim to improve educational outcomes, so we know what does and doesn’t work. This includes developing a Unique Student Identifier for all Australian students, so that their progress can be tracked regardless of their movement across states and territories.     
Entrenched disadvantage is a social and economic blight on Australia that impacts on all of us, not least the Australian children currently living in disadvantage who are at risk of a lifetime of diminished health, wellbeing, educational, and employment outcomes. Disrupting disadvantage and effectively addressing it would benefit everyone.
About the authors

Anne Hampshire

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Anne Hampshire has over 20 years’ experience working across the community and government sectors, including at national, state, regional and local  levels. Anne has researched and written in a range of areas, including children, young people and families, unemployment, social capital and rural and regional communities. Anne has contributed to the development of a range of initiatives aimed at addressing disadvantage, including for young people, families and communities.