Poverty report: more people 'dropping off the edge'

March 30, 2007

With the 15-year resources-led boom stimulating the economy, inflation at about 3% and official unemployment at just under 5%, Australians should have little to complain about. But, according to Tony Vinson of Sydney University's Department of Social Work, the social divide between the rich and poor is deepening and increasing.

Vinson's report, Dropping Off the Edge: the Distribution of Disadvantage in Australia, commissioned by Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services Australia and released in February, maps "social disadvantage" against a range of indicators across all states and the ACT.

It is most exhaustive study of its kind to date in Australia. Vinson uses data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Health Insurance Commission (Medicare), Centrelink and other agencies to put together a picture of the most disadvantaged areas as defined by postcode or local government area. It is Vinson's third such study. The previous two, commissioned in 1999 and 2004, were confined to NSW and Victoria.

Vinson says, "The three reports testify to the stability of established major disadvantage. The same names [of towns and suburbs] appear in the lists of highly disadvantaged areas." His research uncovered a high correlation between incidences of low family income, dependency on sickness or disability benefits, early school leaving, low work skills and long-term unemployment in the most disadvantaged areas. The study ranks areas by level of overall disadvantage, determined by the degree of specific disadvantage that they suffer.

Dropping Off the Edge was written to assist policy development. At the launch of the report, Peter Norden, associate director of the Jesuit Social Services said: "Just like the challenge of Indigenous disadvantage, the alienation of whole communities within mainstream Australian society simply cannot be tolerated, especially in times of such obvious economic growth and prosperity."

"In the health field, the disadvantage index should be used to ensure that post-natal outreach services, parenting support programs and children's diagnostic services are strongly represented within highly disadvantaged neighbourhoods", Vinson writes. He goes on to argue for at least 18 hours of free pre-school per week for disadvantaged children and urges governments to provide incentives to attract experienced teachers to schools in disadvantaged areas.

Vinson also argues for "community" transport to allow people to access services. He advocates changes to the policing of disadvantaged areas and says it is of serious social concern that so many disadvantaged people spend time is prison.

Vinson recommends specific community development projects as the only tools capable of ameliorating the significant social disadvantage. "Such findings caution against a view that an inadequate single 'dose' of assistance is better than no help at all … The consolidated disadvantage of decades cannot be reversed in a year or two", he argues.

The report points to state and federal governments' failure to provide more than short-term projects, which do not address the underlying social problems.

"Tony Vinson's work adds a lot to our understanding of the map of poverty in this country", Dick Nichols, national coordinator of the Socialist Alliance, told Green Left Weekly. "Vinson also puts his finger on the central problem: we can't clear away what he calls the 'web-like structure of disadvantage' without a well-funded and coordinated plan that attacks all problems simultaneously, and which lasts as long as it needs to.

"There would be no problem finding the funds for such a program. For example, the federal government is about to spend at least $21 billion on jet fighters that we don't need. But a sustained increase in the social wage is beyond both the Coalition and the ALP. Both pay lip service to eliminating 'disadvantage' but will not put at risk 'labour market flexibility', balanced budgets, low rates of corporate taxation and all the other fixations of economic rationalism.

"That rules out the sorts of measures needed to boost the social wage and attack entrenched 'disadvantage'. That includes free child care and special programs for under-five-year-olds, properly funded public education and training, boosted social housing, decent public transport and services for young people, the aged and the disabled — all of which strengthen communities."

"The only way to get these is through the struggle for a political alternative that is committed to them. Any reader of Tony Vinson's report should feel more committed to that struggle", Nichols concluded.

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