A United Nations children's fund (UNICEF) report released in February reveals that Australia's economic growth over the last decade has done little to benefit the poorest sections of society, particularly young people. Indeed, in Australia and across the developed world, child poverty has increased in the last 10 years.
The report, Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Poverty in Rich Countries, compiles data on child poverty from the 21 richest countries. In general, Australia scored in the middle range. On one poverty indicator, however, Australia scored second highest: 9.5% of children in Australia live in a family where no working-age adult is employed.
This statistic reveals the inaccuracy of the much-quoted 5% unemployment rate that the federal Coalition government touts as one "success story" of its neoliberal policies. Government unemployment statistics are notoriously vague, excluding anyone who does as little as one hour of paid work per week, but the UNICEF report reveals some of the realities.
The Howard government and, to a lesser extent, previous Labor governments have consistently argued that the way to defeat poverty is through economic growth brought about by attracting capital investment to Australia. This assertion has been used to reduce government spending, privatise national assets and implement "reforms" that reduce taxes on the rich in order to encourage private investment.
Their argument is that these changes will increase Australia's economic growth and, through a never-quite-explained process of "trickling down", some of this new wealth will enrich the poorest in society. Yet, according to the UNICEF report, all of the countries that have implemented this economic approach, in particular the US and Britain, have greater child poverty rates than countries that have retained more social services, such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
The UNICEF report drew some important general conclusions, including that there was no correlation between increases in economic growth and decreases in child poverty. It also noted that there was no connection between the proportion of single-parent families and the rate of child poverty. There was, however, a direct link between high social spending and reduced child poverty.
An Australian Medical Association statement issued after the report was released pointed out that the worst aspects of Australian poverty were among Indigenous people.
The Fred Hollows Foundation, in its 2006 report on Indigenous health in Australia, noted that infant mortality and instances of low birth-weight were twice as high among Indigenous people compared to non-Indigenous. Long-term illness and developmental problems resulting from easily preventable infections were also much higher among Indigenous children, with children in remote areas three times as likely as others to die before the age of one.
The foundation states that this is the result of underspending on Indigenous health. For every $1 per person of public funding spent on non-Indigenous health, only $0.37 is spent on Indigenous health.
In education, the UNICEF study shows Australia scoring well overall, except — once again — in the Indigenous population. Indigenous students are twice as likely as non-Indigenous students to drop out of high school before completion. Lack of access to health and education services are key causes of Indigenous disadvantage in this area.
The UNICEF report noted that relative child poverty was worst in Britain and the US. The US had fewer families with no working adult present than Australia, but higher levels of extreme poverty. This suggests that a large section of the US population are "working poor", struggling to make ends meet despite being employed.
Public spending and the social welfare system in the US have been all but dismantled. This leaves virtually no safety net for families in economic difficulty, and forces people into lower- and lower-paid employment, and further and further below the poverty line. With both the federal Coalition and Labor opposition promising a crackdown on welfare recipients after the next election, this could become true in Australia as well.