Children in poverty

October 16, 1991

Bob Hawke's pledge that by 1990 no child in Australia would live in poverty is little more than a forgotten sick joke. This has not prevented the federal government from undertaking new pledges to improve the lot of children. But, CRAIG CORMICK reports, action still lags far behind the fine words.

"In international co-operation, as well as in our respective countries, we now commit ourselves to the following ten-point programme to protect the rights of children and to improve their lives." — The UN Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children

One year ago, 71 world leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York to attend the World Summit for Children and made a commitment to support the rights of children.

Following the summit, 159 governments pledged themselves to the Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children and its 10-point Plan of Action to provide certain basic rights to children, to be carried out by the end of this decade.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev expressed a widespread sentiment when he said, "Mankind can no longer put up with the fact that millions of children die every year at the close of the 20th century".

Australia became a signatory to the Declaration in May, when Prime Minister Bob Hawke signed the document and committed Australia to the Plan of Action, indicating that an Australian application plan would be ready by the end of this year.

The points, all aimed at alleviating child mortality and suffering, include improving protection for homeless children and street children and those who are victims of abuse, drugs and exploitation.

Yet one year on from the world summit, Australia has a growing number of children in poverty, Aboriginal children still suffer chronic ill health, and there is little sign of the Plan of Action being ready before the end of this year.

Peter Graves, the president of the Canberra One-Parent Family Support Service, said there had been a lot of bureaucratic buck-passing as to which government department should coordinate the plan.

Neal Blewett, the minister for trade and overseas development, stated in correspondence in June, "... an inter-Departmental committee will be formed to develop a national Plan of Action in response to the Declaration. The Plan will be finalised by the end of 1991."

Senator Evans, who attended the summit for Australia, said in the Senate last month that the plan would be complex because it would "stretch across Social Security, Aboriginal Affairs, Health and Community Services and a whole variety of departments".

Yet, according to Peter Graves, there has been no practical action in developing the plan: "It's a significant coordination challenge, and I have doubts about the practical possibility of the Plan of Action of the year".
"We will work to ameliorate the plight of millions of children who live under exceptionally difficult circumstances ... orphans and street children ... the displaced children, the disabled and abused ..." — Point 7, Plan of Action

In 1989 Human Rights commissioner Brian Burdekin estimated that 440,000 children could be living in poverty in Australia. Last year, the Brotherhood of St Laurence estimated that 800,000 children — more than one in five — were living in poverty. It is estimated that 50,000 young people regularly live on the streets.

In May the Salvation Army indicated that there had been a 120% increase in welfare applications across NSW. Numerous welfare and social policy reports indicate that child poverty has increased during the past 12 months.

Peter Graves said that to fulfil the declaration from the summit, the government would need to review all its programs involving children — children in one-parent families, street kids, Aboriginal children, refugee children and children in the Third World.

"It's important to realise that the priority of children first will help us give our children and our children's children a better world into the coming century. That's the promise we can all keep through this decade of the nineties."
"We will work for a solid effort of national and international action to enhance children's mortality in all countries and amongst all peoples. We will promote the provision of clean water in all communities for all their children, as well as universal access to sanitation." — Point 2, Plan of Action

While the provision of basic health services such as clean drinking water would normally be seen as a priority only for a developing country, many Aboriginal children in Australia live in conditions without access to such services and with mortality rates significantly above the national average.

The federal minister for Aboriginal affairs, Robert Tickner, confirmed last month that the general health and well-being of Aborigines are worse now than they were 20 years ago.

He said that Aborigines were "statistically doomed from the moment of their birth to chronic bad health".

Even in Canberra, families can be deprived of regular access to water because of non-payment for services. The ACT branch of the Salvation Army has described this as "penalising the poor for their poverty".

At a hearing of the ACT Community Law Reform Committee into the withdrawal of essential services, the ACT Division of the National Safety Council described the cutting of such services as "barbaric".
"We will work for respect for the role of the family in providing for children and will support the efforts of parents, other ties to nurture and care for children." — Point 5, Plan of Action

There are approximately 400,000 single-parent families in Australia, with over half a million children having only one parent.

The 1989 Burdekin Report said, "Many low income people, especially families with children, have to survive on insufficient nutrition, are unable to heat their homes in winter, are often unable to afford medication".

According to a recent report of the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, conditions for sole parents have shown no signs of improving since. The report said that 61% of sole parents now live largely on government benefits; 75% of unemployed mothers who were sole parents were living in poverty.

The government, for its part, has recently released a Social Justice Strategy entitled "Towards a Fairer Australia". It includes a number of funding packages for improved family assistance, Aboriginal welfare, child-care and disadvantaged youth.

Yet Peter Graves says that there is more that should be done, including work-based child care, which would help supporting sole parents care for their children while obtaining employment.

"The Commonwealth could take a significant lead by having child-care facilities in its own public service buildings, which is important in a place like Canberra", he said.
"We will work for optimal growth and development in childhood, through measures to eradicate hunger, malnutrition and famine, and thus to relieve millions of children of tragic sufferings in a world that has the means to feed all its citizens." — Point 3, Plan of Action

The appalling statistic quoted at last year's world summit — that 40,000 children are dying each day, primarily from hunger-related causes — has changed little. In some countries, such as Iraq, it has become intolerably worse.

Australia's aid budget to the developing world has stopped its steady downward spiral of recent years, and rose 1% to 0.35% of GNP in the last budget, but is still far below the UN goal of 0.7% of GNP.

The UNICEF report The State of the World's Children — 1991 said, "After widespread consultation among governments and agencies of the United Nations, these targets were considered to be feasible and financially affordable over the course of the decade ahead".

Australia would need to increase its aid by $170 million per year to fulfil its share of the global cost of meeting the world summit's goals.

Despite some positive anecdotal evidence, John West, the area manager of World Vision Australia, said that it could be difficult to determine whether there had been any improvement in the condition of the last 12 months.

However, he said, "Our view is the world summit was essential if for no other reason than to express our global concern".

Peter Graves said, "With enough political will our governments can put children first for resources. We can create that will by asking our governments about the progress of the Plan of Action.

"The state of Australia's children, and the world's children, is in our hands."

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