Chapter 11 - Children in poverty
The long-term effect and cost of the rising incidence of
child poverty is substantial on the individual and the community, and we must
address it if we are to provide and sustain a healthy and vibrant and
economical and viable society and break the cycle of poverty for all
experiencing child poverty suffer both short and long-term effects. In the
short term there may be stress, hardship and deprivation from insecure housing
conditions, lack of food and basic amenities. There is often social isolation
and exclusion through lack of funds for school excursions, sporting activities
and what many Australians regard as normal social activities enjoyed by
families. In the long-term, poor educational achievements limit employment
opportunities and may sentence those who have suffered child poverty to a life
long struggle to just survive. This has significant economic impacts for
government, undermines social cohesion and reduces our overall national
11.2 This chapter
looks at the extent of child poverty in Australia, the reasons for child
poverty and its impact on individuals and society.
Children in poverty – an overview
11.3 As discussed
already in this report, there is considerable debate over how to measure poverty.
This applies equally to the measurement of child poverty.
Research using three different income poverty lines, estimated the number of
children in poverty in 2000 as: 479,000 (half median income poverty line);
743,000 (half average income poverty line); and 1,037,000 (Henderson poverty
The costs of housing also impact on the number of children in poverty, with
poverty rates rising when housing costs are taken into account (see Table 11.1)
11.4 . Child poverty
varied across jurisdictions with children in New South Wales and Victoria
having the highest risk of poverty (39.4 per cent and 38.5 per cent
respectively) and Western Australia the lowest (23.3 per cent).
11.1: Extent of child poverty in Australia in 2000, NATSEM/Smith
Henderson Poverty Line (traditional approach)
50% average income
50% median income
Extent of poverty (not accounting for housing costs)
Children in poverty
% of children
Extent of poverty (accounting for housing costs)
Children in poverty
% of children
Source: Submission 163, p.66 (ACOSS).
11.5 On average in
1997-98, poor children lived in families whose income was 28 per cent below the
poverty line, an improvement from both the 31 per cent recorded in 1982 and the
30 per cent recorded in 1995-96 (using the half average income poverty
11.6 Between 1982 and
1997-98, child poverty rose using the Henderson poverty line but declined using
the half median and half average income poverty lines:
- Henderson poverty line: the poverty rate among dependent children
rose from 19.5 per cent in 1982 to 22.7 per cent in 1997-98;
- half median income poverty line: indicated that poverty fell from
13.1 per cent in 1982 to 8.8 per cent in 1997-98 which translated to a
one-third fall in child poverty rates; and
- half average income poverty line: indicated that 14.2 per cent of
dependent children were in poverty in 1997-98, down from 17.4 per cent in 1982.
11.7 Harding and
Szukalska noted that improvements in government programs were an important
reason for the decrease in the proportion of children in poverty during the
1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. These programs included:
- greater generosity to assist low income working families with
children such as family income supplements;
- increases in social security pensions;
- increases in allowances for example, rent assistance and the
extension of rent assistance to a wide-range of low income families with
children who rented privately; and
- the introduction of the Child Support Scheme.
11.8 However, it was
found that there appeared to be an increase in child poverty in the late 1990s
(see Figure 1).
Source: Harding, Lloyd & Greenwell, Financial Disadvantage in Australia
11.9 Comparing the
poverty lines for child poverty between 1990 and 2000, this apparent increase
was stronger when the poverty line was set at half average income rather than
half median income (see Table 11.2). This outcome appears to be partly due to
average income increasing more rapidly than the median income. The growth in
average incomes appears to have been primarily driven by increases in higher
incomes. The incomes of unemployed families with children fully dependent on social
security increased by much less, thus creating a wider gap between the incomes
of the poor and the incomes of the very affluent. It was concluded that 'it is
the rising incomes of the affluent that are generating much of the growth in
the half average income poverty line, and thus the increase in poverty rates
apparent in the 1990s'.
Table 11.2: Estimated
rates of child poverty, 1990 to 2000, before housing costs
Half average income poverty line
Half median income poverty line
poverty line (comparable to above
including all families)
Source: Harding, Lloyd
& Greenwell, pp.5, 35.
11.10 A further matter
explored by Harding and Szukalska was the impact of housing costs on child
poverty as housing is a very significant component of most families' budgets
and a necessity of life. Their research has shown that using an after-housing
measure of poverty is likely to make an important difference to child poverty
estimates as couples with children have higher than average housing costs and
sole parents have lower than average housing costs.
11.11 It was found
that when using half average before-housing income as a poverty line, child
poverty fell some three percentage points from 1982 to 1997-98. But using half
average after-housing income as the poverty line, child poverty changed little
– from 22 per cent in 1982 to 21 per cent in 1995-96. This is due to a change
in the characteristics of children in poor families, with some social security
dependent families with relatively low housing costs being lifted above the
poverty line and being replaced by working poor families with relatively high
housing costs brought about by costs of purchasing a home.
11.12 A number of
other studies have also shed light on child poverty in Australia. Some of these
are outlined in a study by the Brotherhood of St Laurence which found that
income for 15 to 18 year olds who were not classified as dependents had
declined over time. An OECD study published in 1999 indicated a decline in the
relative position of families with children in Australia, while a UNICEF study
concluded that children are at greater risk of poverty than adults in Australia.
However, most studies found that there were fewer families with children living
substantially below the poverty line.
11.13 It appears that
while some families move in and out of poverty over time, a large majority
experience long-term financial hardship. The Brotherhood of St Laurence's Life
Chances Study found that 74 per cent of the children in the study whose
families were on low incomes when they were babies in 1990 were still living on
low incomes when they were aged 11 and 12.
received by the Committee also provides other indicators of the extent of child
poverty. For example, the Australian Federation of Homelessness Organisations (AFHO)
noted that SAAP data identified 50,800 children (of which 90 per cent were
under the age of 12) accessing homelessness services in Australia in 2001-02. AFHO
stated 'this is a damning statistic and underlies the necessity for the
Commonwealth to fully and actively address the experience of poverty and
homelessness by children'.
Tasmania, using the definitions of unemployed head of the family, sole parent
head of family and eligibility for the Low Income Card, calculated that in Tasmania
24,730 children are dependent on parents who fall into the categories
identified by Harding and Szukalska. This is around 25 per cent of the 0-15
year olds in Tasmania. It does not include those children whose parents or
carers are dependent on a range of other Centrelink benefits.
11.16 While it has
been acknowledged that government programs have improved the lives of many
children, it was noted by Harding, Lloyd and Greenwell that 'irrespective of
the poverty line used...results indicate that Australia has not been successful
in reducing poverty in the 1990s, despite falling unemployment'.
UnitingCare Burnside went further, stating that 'the numbers of children in Australia
living in poverty are significant and unacceptably high'.
Characteristics of children in poverty
11.17 Harding and
Szukalska provided a snapshot of the average dependent child living in poverty
lives with both of their parents, both of whom have no
is aged less than 13 years;
lives with one or two brothers or sisters;
- has Australian born parents who have bought or are buying their
- has at least one parent who is earning income, but with earnings
being low due to (primarily) self-employment or (less often) low wages; and
- lives in a family whose principal income source is government
11.18 Harding and
Szukalska also commented that 'the impact of the labour force and sole parent
status of the parents of poor children is critical.' Using employment and
family characteristics the researchers were able to group all poor children
into one of four categories:
- the head of their family is unemployed;
- the head of the family is a sole parent;
- one or both of their parents is self-employed; or
- one or both of their parents earns wages and salaries but is part
of the 'working poor'. Two-thirds of those belonging to this group have a
parent who is a 'low wage earner'.
characteristics of poor children include:
- children where the prime source of income is government income
- children in public or private rental accommodation;
- one or more members of the family are employed in part-time work;
- parents have not attained some level of post-secondary education;
- Indigenous children; and
- children with parents from certain non-English speaking
Sole parent families and couples
11.20 The impact of
more generous provisions for sole parent families can be seen in the decline in
the rate of poverty of children living in sole parent families. In 1982,
children living in a family headed by a female were three times as likely to be
in poverty as children living in families headed by a male. By 1997-98, they
were about twice as likely to be in poverty. Similarly, the poverty risk of
children living in families where their parent was 'separated and divorced'
fell from 42 to 20 per cent between 1982 and 1997-98.
11.21 The improvement
in the number of children at risk of poverty in families headed by a female was
not only due to increases in social security payments but also changes in child
support arrangements. The proportion of all children living in sole parent
families who benefited from child support payments rose from only 12 per cent
in 1982 to 31 per cent in 1997-98. Harding and Szukalska estimated that
had the scheme not existed, child poverty could have been 1.2 per cent higher,
representing 58,000 children.
11.22 However, while government
initiatives have improved the position of sole parents over the last decade,
sole parent families still face the greatest risk of poverty. While the poverty rate of sole parent families
fell from 28.0 per cent in 1990 to 21.8 per cent in 2000, it still means
that more than one in every five Australians living in sole parent families is
in poverty. Children in intact families face about half the risk of being in
poverty of children in sole parent families.
11.23 Evidence to the Committee pointed to a
number of factors which contribute to the poverty rate in sole parent families.
First, sole parents face greater barriers in finding employment. These include
low educational attainment and, for women who have been out of the workforce,
lack of up-to-date skills. Sole parents often work in part-time or casual jobs
in order to meet parenting responsibilities. Sole parent may also face problems
with accessing suitable and affordable child care as they do not have a partner
to share child care and must rely much more on paid child care.
11.24 Secondly, it was argued that income
support payments are inadequate to meet the needs of sole parent families,
particularly those with older children, and did not recognise the higher costs
of separated households. The Brotherhood of St Laurence, while noting that the
introduction of the Child Support Scheme has helped to share the cost of
raising children between custodial and non-custodial parents, stated that the
costs are still higher for separated families than for those living together.
11.25 Thirdly, a
number of submissions argued that child poverty had increased because of
changes to family payments. The National Council of Single Mothers and their
Children (NCSMC) stated that the risk of poverty for single parent households
had increased over the past few years due to:
- the introduction, in July 2000, of splitting family payments
between separated parents on a proportionate hours basis thereby reducing the
level of financial support to primary carer households for every hour the other
parent has contact with the children;
- the 1999 reduction in the ceiling of payee disregarded income
before child support obligations of payers are reduced;
- the 1999 increase in exempt child support income for payers and
for payers sharing care of a child; and
- the rise in child support debts to payees following the dismantling
of compulsory collection practices and the introduction of 'endless flexibility'
without consequences for recalcitrant payers.
11.26 Sole parents and
poverty is discussed further in chapter 10.
11.27 Couples with
children had a poverty rate of 12.2 per cent in 2000. The risk of poverty for
families increases as the number of children in a family increases. For
example, those with three or more dependent children families are about twice
as likely to be in poverty as those with only one child – 19 per cent versus 8.6
per cent. The poverty risk among couples with children has risen by about one
fifth during the 1990s.
Unemployment and low wages
11.28 A key factor
influencing the likelihood of a child being in poverty in Australia is the
labour force status of their parents. The growth in employment between 1992 and
2002 benefited families with dependent children. The number of couple families
with dependent children aged 14 years and under and both parents employed
increased by 89,900. The number of employed sole parents with children 14 years
and under employed increased by 97,500.
11.29 During the same
period the number of sole parent families with no parent employed grew by
73,600. In contrast, there was a decrease of 44,800 in the number of couple
families in which neither partner was employed.
11.30 Mission Australia
stated that in 1993, 18.8 per cent of all children aged under 15 were in
families where no one worked. This figure dropped slightly in 2001 to 17.9 per
cent. In 1993, 10.8 per cent of children living in couple families had neither
parent employed. By 2001 this figure had dropped to 7.5 per cent which means
that about 704,000 children aged 15 and under are growing up in families where
no one worked.
11.31 Harding and
Szukalska showed that using the half average poverty line, in 1995-96, children
living in a family where there was no parents earning an income faced a one in
three chance of living in poverty (36 per cent of children). The risk of living
in poverty fell once one or both parents were working: 9 per cent where there
was one parental earner and 7 per cent where there were two parental earners.
After taking housing costs into account the figures increased to 53 per cent,
18 per cent and 12 per cent respectively.
11.32 While the risk
of poverty was higher in those families where there was no parent earning an
income, the majority of children living in poverty had one or two parental
earners in their family. Children whose parents were self-employed faced a
poverty rate of 17 per cent while those whose principal income was wages and
salaries faced a poverty rate of 5 per cent. However, only a relatively few
children live in self-employed families. In addition, Harding and Szukalska
stated that while many self-employed parents do experience great financial
hardship, there was also some concern that the income of such families may not
always accurately reflect their standard of living.
11.33 The poverty rate
of 5 per cent for children in families earning wages and salaries represented
an estimated 163,000 children in working poor families. This was an increase of
46,000 children in working poor families between 1995-96 and 1997-98, an almost
40 per cent increase. As a result of these trends, children living in working
poor families represented almost one-quarter of all dependent children in
poverty by 1997-98.
The 'working poor' is discussed more extensively in Chapter 4.
Families receiving government
11.34 Since the 1980s,
there have been a number of major reforms which have assisted families with
children. In the early 1980s rent assistance and additional payments for
children were available only to social security beneficiaries and longer term
sickness beneficiaries. Low income families received only a relatively small
family allowance payment.
11.35 The family
income supplement was introduced in May 1983 to provide extra assistance for
low income working families with children. In 1987, a single family allowance
supplement was introduced for all low income families with children, which
substantially increased payment levels. This was followed by further policy
changes including the extension of rent assistance to all recipients of
sickness allowances, to most unemployed people and to low income working
families with children in private rental accommodation.
11.36 Family Tax
Initiatives have been introduced since 1996. Family Tax Benefit A is paid to
low and middle-income families with dependent children under 21 years of age
and/or dependent full-time students aged 21 to 24. The payment is subject to an
income and assets test. Family Tax Benefit B provides assistance to
single-income families including single parents. Parenting Payment is an income
support payment for one parent with responsibility for caring for a child under
16 years of age. In 2002 there were 620,300 recipients (1,168,500 children)
receiving the maximum rate of FTB A and 570,700 sole parents (965,200 children)
and 300,400 couple families (638,800 children) receiving the maximum rate of
11.37 While these government
initiatives reduced the risk of child poverty, particularly for children in
sole parent families and large families, children living in families reliant on
government income support still have a high probability of being poor. In
1997-98, children living in families whose principal income source was
government cash benefits accounted for 63 per cent of all dependent children
living in poverty. This represented a total of 442,000 children.
NATSEM research estimates that for all families, the poverty rate for those
receiving government cash benefits in 2000 was 31.1 per cent, an increase from
23.9 per cent in 1990. AFHO stated 'the proportion of families on government
benefits in poverty highlights the absolute inadequacy of payment levels to
Children with parents from
non-English speaking backgrounds
suggests that the children of migrants from Asia generally face a poverty risk
which is about one-third to one-half greater than that for children with
Australian-born parents. The highest child poverty rates are among migrants of
South and Central America, Middle Eastern and Northern Africa backgrounds, with
rates reaching as high as 25 per cent. The highest poverty rates among children
of migrant parents were among families who arrived in Australia before 1981,
possibly reflecting 'the changing balance in Australia's immigration policy
since 1980 between domestic, humanitarian and international, and economic
criteria leading to growing numbers of "skilled" immigrants who have
a higher likelihood of success in the Australian labour market'.
Children living in poverty
recently I had no clear picture of just what that phrase [child poverty] meant.
What it means is that my children and many more besides are unlikely to reach
their full potential due to the increasing inequality in Australian society.
This is not due to lack of parental effort but the reality is that income
support payments are below the poverty line to begin with. Intelligence and
diligence will not change the reality that:
- My children have fewer sporting
and cultural opportunities.
- My children are discriminated
against due to our family status.
- My children are disadvantaged in
life simply because I cannot afford to provide the same opportunities that
other families can.
- The level of education I can
afford for my children will differ from those who do not live in a Sole Parent
- Due to the reality that income
payments are already below the poverty line our government in effect keeps my
children in poverty.
- The Child Support Agency is not
always effective and contributes to higher levels of poverty due to their
inability to collect financial support from the children's father.
38, p.9 (Ms J Maynard).
11.39 The Committee received
much evidence on the experiences of children growing up in poverty. First and
foremost inadequate income means that families have great difficulty in meeting
the basic costs of living.
certainly is about income. To give you an example, one of our families living
in the northern suburbs has an income level of $27,000 per year and four
children. Education costs in February of this year were $8,000 to send their
children back to school. You cannot tell me that that is financial hardship;
that is poverty. A family on $27,000 a year cannot afford $8,000 to send four
kids back to school at the beginning of the year. That is not a choice
decision; that is the reality.
Committee Hansard 30.4.03, p.39 (Anglicare Victoria).
talk about the painful decisions that people on low incomes have to make: the
choice between a carton of milk and paying for a school excursion; the sense of
failure that families face in having to tell their children that they cannot
have a pair of shoes, they cannot go on excursion, they cannot participate in
normal activities. The stress is a huge factor, leading to poor health, breakdown
in relationships and family instability.
Committee Hansard 2.5.03, p.212 (TASCOSS).
11.40 For those living
in poverty, there is constant juggling of money just to pay for the things that
families need: food, accommodation, clothing, education, transport, health care
and recreation. Unexpected expenses such as repair bills or health costs can be
a major disaster for low income families who more often than not have no
savings. The constant struggle impacts on families causing extra stress and
mum makes $194 a week and she's got four kids to feed. It's just not enough.
She's got enough to put food in the kids but then she's got nothing left and
when the electricity bill comes in they have to eat less food...
133, p.4 (UnitingCare).
those negative thoughts you have because you have no money – the kids pick up
on it. They say things like: 'Why can’t we have a tin of Milo?' How do
you say, 'This is all I've got'?
32, p.12 (Tasmanian Catholic Justice and Peace Commission).
11.41 Children in
poverty find their quality of life eroded. They often suffer from great
material hardship and have very few possessions, very little clothing and very
few educational toys or books. Children living in poverty often miss out on
experiences that many other Australian children enjoy – entertainment,
participating in sport or clubs, taking music and dance lessons. Treats or
little luxuries that provide much needed enjoyment or relief for a family under
pressure are not an option for a family choosing what bill to pay and what food
they can afford to purchase.
just do not send their children on the days when there are excursions. They
just stay home. I have spoken to mothers. I used to live in Port Willunga...and
we had one primary school there. About 10 kilometres away there was
another primary school in Willunga. Some parents did not send their
children to our local school. For whatever reason, there was no school bus,
there was not really public transport that was going from one village to the other
so the parents had to drive their children. If there was no petrol, the kids
would stay home. That would happen regularly at the end of the fortnight. That
is where the $200 was missing when the budget came in. You save petrol money if
you do not take them to school.
Committee Hansard 29.5.03, p.29 (Australian National Organisation of the Unemployed).
daughter goes to Ogilvie High [publicly-run girls' high school] – that's our
choice. But the uniform breaks us. You have to have special socks, pants,
blazer. We buy it all second hand and sell it as soon as she's grown out of it
but it still costs a fortune and she's growing fast. My daughter is very
musical but we don't have any money for music lessons. There's no money for
school trips or singing lessons. She'd love to be in the school choir but if
you are, you have to travel. We can't set aside the $1-2000 they ask for. It
makes me feel really guilty as a father. My daughter is very confident because
we've worked hard to help her be like that. She could do these things. Having
to say no is heartbreaking for her and us.
32, p.8 (Tasmanian Catholic Justice and Peace Commission).
11.42 Children in
poverty often feel different from their peers. Isolation and exclusion
reinforce poor social skills as there is no money for activities which other
children take for granted. The Tasmanian Commissioner for Children provided a
graphic example of the way in which poverty extends beyond even poor social
The most impoverished section of the community are children
because they are the most invisible...their parents are least able to articulate
that huge disadvantage they have because their poverty boils down even to the
language. They are not able to articulate. For example, when I went to talk to
a young person in a juvenile justice centre I asked him his date of birth. He
looked at me blankly till one of his friends jabbed him in the ribs and said,
'When is your birthday, mate?' He had not heard the term 'date of birth'. That
was not part of his vocabulary. That kind of entrenched poverty is even in
language and they cannot articulate it.
11.43 Many submissions
expressed concern that the life potential for children growing up in situations
of poverty is diminished as a direct result of being poor.
Children in poverty lack choice and have fewer options.
11.44 Poor families
must live in areas where housing is more affordable, and families may move to a
different area to find cheaper housing. In doing so, they may find
accommodation but have to move away from friends and their support networks.
Areas of cheaper housing also have less developed community and health
services, few job opportunities and poorer public transport. Lower-income areas
are more likely to experience high rates of crime and more poorly resourced schools.
This increases the sense of isolation that many low-income families feel and
reinforces the lack of life choices for parents and their children.
Whilst experiencing a reasonable
level of poverty myself, I am also acutely aware of the issues faced by those
who are in the community of Bidwill...Up to 69% of residents live in Public
Housing and a high percentage rely on Centrelink benefits.
is extreme socio-economic disadvantage in Bidwill, which has a high
concentration of Sole Parents, low incomes, high unemployment and low levels of
education and qualifications. There is a large population of ATSI backgrounds
and there is a growing number of Pacific Islanders in the community. There are
high rates of crime in this area and many in the community live in fear. Due to
the fact that these people must rely on Public Housing and Centrelink benefits
they are trapped and unlikely to improve their lives or the lives of their
children. The cycle of alcohol and drug abuse will pass from generation to
generation because in effect, they live in slum conditions. This is not the
only public housing estate of its kind in Sydney and NSW.
38, pp.2-3 (Ms J Maynard).
11.45 Of most concern
are the poor educational achievements and diminished opportunities suffered by
children in poverty. UnitingCare Burnside stated 'much has been made in recent
years about the importance of parental choice in education. Poverty makes a
mockery of such statements'.
Low income families do not have a choice of school: their children must rely on
the public education system and because of transport costs, must rely on the
closest public school rather than the one best suited to the needs of their
child. This can lead to lifelong disadvantage with early school leavers often
unable to find employment, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
contributes to isolation and exclusion. Isolation arises through housing
choice: as already noted, poor families are restricted to low cost areas where
poor transport makes getting around difficult. If families have moved away from
family and friends, they have fewer support networks and their sense of
isolation increases. In the private rental market, housing is less secure and
families may move frequently, thus making it extremely difficult to build
networks. As UnitingCare Burnside noted 'at the most extreme end, child and
family homelessness makes it extremely difficult to maintain any stable
connections with people or place'.
11.47 The discussion
in Chapter 7 on school education noted that children living in poverty often
feel isolated and excluded within the school environment: their families lack
money for books, uniforms, computers, participation in sports or excursions.
11.48 Children from
poorer families are less able to afford to go out with friends or keep up
regular social contacts. They have less pocket money than other children and
don't have the same toys or games. Children living in poverty may feel unable
to invite friends home because they live differently to their friends. One
parent described this situation:
Like my daughter, she has friends who come from fairly well off
homes and I find that after a while the friendship cools off. The others can do
this and do that but she can't and if affects the relationships.
11.49 UnitingCare Burnside
concluded that 'as poverty isolates it robs people of their sense of connection
to others and diminishes their motivation, energy and capacity to contribute to
the wider community'.
11.50 Children in
poverty are also exposed to greater risks than other Australian children, ranging
from insecure accommodation and the threat of homelessness to poor physical and
mental health. Families suffering hardship are placed under enormous stress
which may lead to violence, to marriage breakdown and mental health problems.
Children in poverty may live in families where drug and alcohol abuse are
present, and where there is criminal and anti-social behaviour. The impact of
these risks on children, as the most vulnerable members of the family, is often
profound leading to life long disadvantage and hardship for themselves.
The impact of poverty on children
Children are vulnerable and dependent, and the effects and
impacts of poverty can so easily stultify and distort their future lives by
robbing them of opportunities to develop their potential.
11.51 There have been
numerous studies on the impact of poverty on children and a range of adverse
outcomes have been identified.
11.52 In the area of
learning and educational attainment studies both in Australia and overseas
indicate that child poverty has a detrimental impact on achievement. The
research indicated that children living in poverty have reduced cognitive
development and score lower IQs, the latter being particularly apparent for
children exposed to poverty early in life. There are problems in adjustment and
lower school achievement. Children who experience poverty are more likely to
experience learning difficulties and developmental delays. Poor families do not
always have access to educational resources such as books and computers. Parents
are less likely to read to their children and to foster an expectation of
educational achievement and life-long learning.
11.53 Other research
cited by UnitingCare Burnside identified children's situations that magnify the
negative education impacts of poverty, including:
- children whose parents have chronic psychiatric illness or a drug
and/or alcohol problem;
- children where English is not spoken at home and where parents
have little education themselves and may be illiterate in their native
- children living in multi-problem families (violence, drug abuse,
mental illness) where parents are overwhelmed and not coping; and
- Indigenous families and communities where poverty is entrenched
11.54 Children living
in poverty have poor overall health and grow into adults who have a greater
risk of poor health. Disadvantaged children have:
- higher rates of prematurity and low birth weight;
higher rates of infant mortality;
- increased rates of sudden infant death syndrome;
- increased rates of accidental and non-accidental injury and
lower rates of immunisation;
- lower prevalence and duration of breast feeding;
- increased rates of developmental delay; and
increased rates of hospitalisation.
11.55 Children with
the highest burden of oral disease are more likely to be from a lower
socioeconomic background, reside in rural areas or be of Indigenous origin.
Nationally, boys aged 0 to 14 years from poorer areas are 20 per cent less
likely to have gone to the dentist in the previous 12 months than boys in
richer areas, girls were 40 per cent less likely.
11.56 UnitingCare Burnside
also reported that children in poverty are at significantly greater risk of
developing mental health and behavioural problems such as delinquency,
depressive and anxiety disorders, substance abuse etc. A West Australian study
found that as parental income fell, the incidence of mental health problems
increased: an average of 15 per cent of the children in the upper three
quintiles of income suffered mental health problems, the proportion increased
in the lowest two quintiles to 19 per cent and 25 per cent respectively.
11.57 There is
evidence that poverty and associated disadvantage are significant factors in
youth suicide. Studies have shown that those in low paid jobs - where there is
low job autonomy and lower promotional prospects, tend to have higher suicide
rates. It was also found that youth suicide is related to unemployment, greater
dependency and poverty. Burnside concluded that 'while it needs to be
remembered that there are significant other influences on suicide, notably
mental health concerns, the significance of poverty including the vulnerability
it creates to other problems, should not be discounted'.
The impact of poverty on
children's health – A service providers perspective
the last two weeks on a local housing estate we have experienced an epidemic of
impetigo and scabies in children, from babies to teenagers. There were small
babies covered in weeping sores which were aggravated by an underlying scabies
infection which made them scratch and was extremely painful. There were babies
who had lived with this condition for months. These children were living in
households of up to 15 on a high-density housing estate. Many of their parents
had poor English and had not accessed health care cards as they were unaware of
their entitlements, or language and cultural barriers had prevented them from
Public transport to get to medical attention is
expensive, as the only accident and emergency services are located in areas
such as Wollongong or Shellharbour, which require an expensive private
bus trip, one which parents could not afford. Even if they accessed their local
doctor, many did not have Medicare cards for bulk-billing, and anyway they
could not afford the medication. So children went untreated. Barnardos, when it
became aware of this situation, approached the public health system to attempt
to address the problem. They had no services which could meet these children's
needs. There was no public health response, due to lack of resources, so no
assistance was given.
We managed to convince a local general practitioner to
visit our community centre on the estate in his lunchtime, see the 15 children
who attended on that day, and issue scripts. Luckily, the department of
community services very generously agreed to pay for the $500 worth of scripts
that were required for these 15 children and treatment could then progress. We
had workers supervising the initial treatment for families to make sure it
worked. The average cost per script was $40 for three medications necessary to
treat the illness, a charge which was way beyond affordability for these
Our concern is what happens next time. This was a
response to a crisis which worked this time for the 15 children involved. It
worked because of the personal networks staff had in the area to pull services
together at short notice...On this same estate we have experienced long periods
of head lice outbreaks, leading to disruption in children's education, as do
the impetigo and scabies. We have searched for dollars to purchase head lice
treatment, to no avail. In the end, because parents cannot afford the
treatment, they shave their kid's heads. Children who attend the schools are
then taunted and teased because they are bald and dirty. The consequence is
that they do not attend school. Untreated childhood diseases which are a direct
result of family poverty affect children's education. Simple childhood diseases
should not disable our children.
Committee Hansard 2.7.03, pp.918-99, Barnardos Australia - South Coast NSW.
The impact of poverty on
children's health – A GPs experience
I had to give a kind of stereotyped chronology of what I see happens with my
patients and I look at just an 18-year cycle, what I can see is a patient who
might have sporadic antenatal care because their mother does not get proper
antenatal care, they are not breast fed or are only breast fed for a week or
two, they are put onto cow's milk too early and are then put onto solids and
given largely a sugar and trans-saturated fat diet. Then by preschool and when
I see them—when they are four or five or younger—they have terrible teeth,
which are like a window to their health. They have dental caries, recurrent
upper respiratory tract infections, otitis media and a kind of obesity we are
seeing now among the poor...
There is no one-on-one language development for many
of these kids and no books. There is an environment of violence at home, late
nights, no sleep and sporadic attendance at school, with them leaving school at
grade 8 or 9 or 10 virtually illiterate and virtually innumerate...
As GPs we see that on a daily basis, and there are
some points to take from that. We tend to be brought up with the notion that
people get obese because they eat too much good food, whereas what is being
evidenced now in the literature is that people are eating too much junk food
and getting fat but they are malnourished. Despite the fact that they are
overweight, they are malnourished because of a large diet of sugar in various
forms—soft drinks and so forth—and transsaturated fat intakes. There is a lot
of evidence to suggest that peri-natal nutrition—nutrition during the first few
months of life—is vitally important to long-term health care.
Committee Hansard 4.8.03, p.1220, Dr Theo van Lieshout (an Ipswich GP).
11.58 Poverty places
great strains on family relationships and children may be living in households
suffering from dysfunctional relationships. Poverty also undermines parenting
with studies finding that economic and social stress leads to parents being
less nurturing and more rejecting of their children.
11.59 Children living
in poverty have a higher incidence of child abuse and neglect and their parents
have poorer parenting skills.
As noted by the Child and Family Welfare Association of Australia (CAFWAA), 'while
most poor families do not abuse or neglect their children...research collectively
identifies poverty as the single most significant condition connected to child
abuse and neglect'. For example, in the United States a survey of child abuse
reports made to central registries found that nearly 60 per cent of families
involved in abuse incidents had been on welfare during or prior to the study
Barnardos also pointed to studies that confirm a marked relationship between
the rates of abuse and neglect and socio-economic group: children from the
lowest socioeconomic groups suffering a greater incidence of abuse and neglect.
This finding was confirmed by Barnardos own analysis of its abuse prevention
programs which revealed that over 70 per cent of clients were dependent on
pensions or benefits.
11.60 Other evidence
supported these findings. CAFWAA noted that a South Australian study of abused
children in sole parent families found that in 54 per cent of cases involving the
mother and 44 per cent of cases involving the father, the parent was receiving
a pension. In Victoria a study found that most parents of children in care of
the Department of Human Services were receiving a pension or benefit.
In NSW, a study found that rates of physical abuse were two and a half times
higher in the bottom 4 per cent of post code areas (identified in terms of
socioeconomic variables) than the 6 per cent of postcodes immediately above.
11.61 While noting
that parenthood can at times be stressful, Barnardos stated that 'financial
resources can make the difference as to whether or not behaviour towards
children remains socially acceptable'. Poverty affects parents' relationship
with their children because of social isolation, lack of access to information
about parenting and conditions of the parent-child interaction (attitudes in
childrearing, which includes a sense of hopelessness and predisposition to
violence). Social isolation leaves children vulnerable as parents get little
relief through emergency support; there is a lack of social policing; and there
is a lack of emotional and practical support. Poverty also means that parents
can not afford babysitting, quality child care or social or sports activities.
Parents in poverty are also more likely to suffer from ill health and to have
children who are ill. UnitingCare Burnside concluded that:
Under these circumstances it is understandable that some parents
have a less informed or unrealistic understanding of parenting and children's
behaviour. When these obstacles are compounded by significant additional
burdens such as substance abuse or mental illness the tasks of parenting can
seem insurmountable and family life becomes a landscape of unrelenting trouble.
Social and economic costs of child poverty
11.62 UnitingCare Burnside
identified many of the social and economic costs of child poverty:
- learning difficulties and delayed cognitive development increases
costs of special education and remedial education services in pre-schools. In
later life there are substantial costs associated with school failure, reduced
school retention rates, lower employment, productivity and taxation revenue and
increased income support payments and other costs associated with unemployment;
- costs associated with mental health problems and behavioural
difficulties include provision of specialist teachers for students with
behavioural problems, costs of community mental health services, GP services,
and in-patient and out-patient mental health and psychiatric services;
- lower health status results in higher utilisation of many health
services including GPs, community health services and hospitals;
- ineffective parenting results in increased direct and indirect
costs across a broad spectrum of services; and
- child abuse and neglect carries an enormous financial cost. Costs
include expenditure on government agencies having statutory responsibility for
child protection and investigation of child abuse and neglect. There are also
costs for police, courts and very significant costs related to the provision of
11.63 The South
Australian Government estimated that in 1995-96 $355 million was expended
because of child abuse and neglect. This included $2 million by welfare,
health, education and justice agencies in responding to known incidence of
child abuse and neglect; $10 million in responding to child abuse and neglect
not reported to child protection agencies; and $303 million in further costs
including disability, injury and the subsequent effects on the future parenting
ability of the child.
11.64 Witnesses also
pointed to the broader economic and social costs of child poverty. They argued
that children who live in poverty and who do not reach their full potential as
a result of privation, lack of educational attainment and motivation represent
a lost opportunity for economic growth. In particular, leaving school early
adversely impacts on the human resources available to the economy. The 'human-capital'
potential of the children may never be realised to benefit the economy. The Tasmanian
Commissioner for Children for example, pointed to Taiwan, Korea and Singapore
where there has been significant investment in education resulting in expanding
11.65 In addition,
lost opportunity costs caused by child poverty may have a greater impact in the
future with the growth of 'knowledge economies' where the capacity for
creativity and innovation will be key ingredients. These ingredients are
dependent on human and intellectual resources. Unitingcare Burnside concluded:
[We] would like to emphasise that providing resources will be
most important where children's developmental opportunities are most
compromised, ie for children and families in poverty. To maximise our nation's
capacity for growth and innovation we need a healthy, competent population
across all socio-economic levels.
11.66 There is also a
social cost in child poverty. Isolation and dislocation in childhood through
poverty undermines connections with community and institutions in that
community. The social fabric of society is undermined. The SDA argued that the
well-being of families is crucial to the well-being of the nation. As such, 'there
is an overwhelming need for government to put in place strategies to support
families. Such strategies must be designed to build social capital by promoting
families and extending their capacity to function effectively'.
11.67 Witnesses also
pointed to the cost of intergenerational poverty where there is a cycle of
Children living in poverty are more likely to experience adult poverty with a
huge cost to society generally. There was evidence from welfare agencies that
two and even three generations of families were being assisted by agencies.
Responding to child poverty
11.68 The process of
child poverty is complex and the solutions are also complex, going far beyond
simply increasing government income support. It was argued that a fundamental
step in alleviating child poverty (and poverty generally) is the development of
a long-term comprehensive plan to address child poverty. Such a plan would
enable a national approach to be taken and encompass both the Commonwealth and
State and Territory Governments in consultations with key stakeholders. It
would require commitment and the development of long-term, comprehensive goals.
CAFWAA proposed that:
...in terms of a national strategy, we put to the inquiry that
there is a glaring need for a national approach to reducing levels of child
poverty. The costs are far too high for the individuals concerned and for
society at large. In saying that, obviously we are not suggesting that that is
simply or easily done, but it does require a national approach, a holistic
approach, and it will require leadership from the Commonwealth to develop and
implement that strategy.
CAFWAA stated that a national plan must address
simultaneously the structural systemic issues as well as the particular
personal obstacles that a lot of families are facing.
So it is about a strategy that addresses clearly matters of low
family income. Low family incomes need to be lifted in absolute and in relative
terms. The access to services for poor families, particularly access to
affordable housing, is critical as well as access to health and education. As
well as those systemic issues, we have to inevitably put in place targeted
programs for poor families...to address some of the major personal barriers that
they experience, that have often come from their impoverished circumstances:
issues to do with family violence, issues to do with mental health,
difficulties in their role as parents and parenting effectively and so on.
11.69 UnitingCare Burnside
also recommended that consideration be given to positioning aspects of a
national plan to address child poverty within a broader national early
childhood development strategy. The impact of poverty in early childhood is
discussed further in Chapter 7. UnitingCare Burnside also recommended
that consideration should be given to the instigation of a Children's Futures
levy (similar to the Medicare levy) in order to raise funds for the enhancement
of all Australian children's developmental opportunities including children
living in poverty.
11.70 National child anti-poverty
plans have been developed overseas. In both the United Kingdom and Ireland the
commitment to the eradication of child poverty has been at the forefront of the
political agenda. In Britain, between 1979 and 1997, child poverty rose
significantly: from 14 per cent to 33 per cent (defined as children living in
households with equivalised incomes below 60 per cent of the median after
housing costs). There was also evidence that living standards were not being
maintained and international comparisons demonstrated that the UK was not
faring well compared to Europe and the OECD.
11.71 In 1999, the UK
Government announced that it was on a twenty year mission to 'end child poverty
forever'. Child poverty would be reduced by 25 per cent by 2004 and 50 per cent
by 2010, and to eradicate it by 2020. The first phase of the program would see
1 million children removed from poverty.
11.72 Child poverty is
not being tackled in isolation; young people, working age people, older people
and communities are also being targeted. To do so, the UK Government is
developing benchmarks and indicators to monitor progress in the achievement of
its anti-poverty objective and has established government bodies and
consultative mechanisms that are tasked with developing policy to that end. Specific strategies for different groups have
been identified, including:
investing in the crucial early years and education to break the
cycle of deprivation;
- building a proactive welfare system which helps people into work;
- tackling the problems of low income and social exclusion among
- ensuring core public services address the special needs of
11.73 One program
targeted to children, the SureStart program, works to deliver the best start in
life for every child. It brings together early childhood education, health and
benefits for children have been increased substantially in real terms, with
rates for children aged under 11 rising by 80 per cent. In April 2003, the
Child Tax Credit (a means tested allowance paid to persons who are responsible
for at least one child or qualifying young person) was introduced. The Child
Tax Credit is made up by two different elements, the family element and the
child element. The rate of child element for each child depends on the
circumstances of each child in the family with extra amounts for children who
11.75 Since the
introduction of anti-poverty programs in the UK, poverty has declined, with
child poverty reduced to 30 per cent. This is the lowest level in the UK since
1991. However, the Government has been warned that the rate of decrease in
child poverty will have to increase in order to meet the 2004 target. This is
partly due to the increasing national income which impacts on the measure of
poverty used – the contemporary median income poverty line. This poverty line
increased by 15 per cent in real terms between 1998 and 2002.
The UK Government has responded by seeking consultations on the measurement of
child poverty to establish a poverty measure that 'commands widespread support'.
11.76 In 1997, the
Irish Government adopted through their National Anti Poverty Strategy explicit
targets for the reduction of poverty in the areas of educational disadvantage,
unemployment, adequacy of social transfers, disadvantaged urban areas and rural
poverty. The Irish NAPS is discussed further in Chapter 18 on future directions
where the Committee has also made recommendations on a national strategy to
alleviate poverty in Australia.
Initiatives to reduce the incidence
and impact of child poverty
contained many specific recommendations directed at alleviating child poverty.
It was noted that those measures which impact generally on poverty will aid
children: reducing unemployment rates and improving wages. Many witnesses
pointed to the need to ensure that government income support was adequate to
the needs of families with children. It was argued that inadequate income is a
key feature of the experience of poverty. As so many families receiving income
support are in poverty it was recommended that the level of income support be
lifted. UnitingCare Burnside recommended that all benefits should have parity
with the base aged pension rate.
11.78 Witnesses also
pointed to the role of education in overcoming child poverty. Improved levels
of educational attainment not only ensure that parents are less likely to be
unemployed, higher levels of educational attainment by children now living in
poverty will help them into employment and ensure a higher quality of life in
adulthood. The Committee considers education is one of the fundamental issues
in breaking the cycle of poverty and it is discussed in detail in chapter 7.
11.79 The Committee
also received much evidence on the benefit of integrated programs which aim to
provide integrated support for children and their families. Many of these
programs are delivered by welfare and community organisations. They target specific
communities and provide a continuum of care and support. Their aim is to
ameliorate the impact of poverty on many levels.
11.80 Three services
initiatives were recommended by UnitingCare Burnside:
- development of a system of multi-component early parenting support
and education programs for families at risk;
- quality children's services (long-day care and pre-school) must
be made more accessible to disadvantaged families; and
expansion of intensive family services for families with more
entrenched and complex problems.
parenting support and early education programs are aimed at at-risk families. UnitingCare
Burnside stated that such a system does not currently exist in Australia and
pointed to the Head Start Program in the United States and SureStart in the UK
as examples of programs instigated overseas. For those beginning in infancy,
outcomes of these programs have produced some substantial improvements
including better school attendance; improved behaviour for children and for
parents improved nurturing attitudes to children; greater confidence as parents;
and adoption of less punitive approaches to discipline.
11.82 SureStart is
part of the UK Government's drive to tackle child poverty and social exclusion,
by improving the health and well being of families and children before and
after birth, so children are ready to flourish when they got to school. By
2004, 500 SureStart programs were established in neighbourhoods with the
highest level of poverty focussing on improving social and emotional development,
improving the ability to learn, improving health and providing nurturing
advice. The Government committed £898 million for programs in England between
2002 and 2004.
services bring together universal, free, early education and more and better
child care with greater support where there is a greater need through
children's tax credit, children's centres and SureStart local programs. Local
programs are as varied as the areas and communities that they serve and each is
unique and develops services and facilities that parents of under fours have
identified as being needed. Some examples of programs include:
- employment, training and confidence building through support and
resources to encourage and enable employment, for example, providing IT training
with childcare facilities;
- post natal support projects to support children under for and
their families in the target area; and
book and toy bus project that provides a service that welcomes
and encourages the youngest reader.
11.84 Over the past
decade, welfare agencies have sought to go beyond providing just immediate
assistance to children in poverty and have established family support and early
intervention programs to reduce the impact of poverty. Mission Australia stated
that there are more than 10,000 such programs. At the State and Commonwealth
level there has also been a move toward early intervention. Examples include
the Victorian Government's Best Start Strategy¸ the Families First
Strategy in New South Wales, Tasmania's Together strategy, Queensland's
Families: Future Directions and the Commonwealth's Stronger Families
and Communities Strategy.
agencies provide many programs. For example, UnitingCare Burnside pointed to
its Intensive Family Based Service where each staff member works with two
families with a high number of contact hours per week. It was stated this
service are very positive with one study indicating that the risk to children
participating had been decreased by 81 per cent. However, this is one of the
few programs of this type available to families with complex needs.
11.86 UnitingCare Burnside
argued that there was a need for an intensive program to provide services in
disadvantaged areas with a high incidence of child abuse and neglect and a high
rate of entry of children and young people into care. Such a program would be
of great benefit to Indigenous communities where there are high rates of entry
of children and young people into care.
11.87 Mission Australia's
Pathways to Prevention Project targets preschool age children, their
families, schools and community with early intervention programs designed to
help children make a successful transition from home to school. A suite of
early intervention programs have been developed and implemented within a
community development framework.
Mission Australia commented:
Mission Australia is convinced that the development of adequate
early intervention and prevention strategies available at the known steps of
social and economic disadvantage and at significant life transition points
would significantly reduce the impact of poverty for many Australians...
Mission Australia are also aware that the responsibility for
addressing the issue of poverty is not solely with governments. Our experience
with the Pathways to Prevention Project and other joint ventures is that the
best solutions are based on effective partnerships between government,
non-government, universities and the private sector. Involvement of
non-government and other sectors should not be seen as an alternative to
government initiatives but as a means by which government can add value to
11.88 Child poverty
remains a critical issue in Australia. While progress in reducing child poverty
was made from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s, it now appears that child poverty
is again on the increase. The Family Tax Initiatives have failed to maintain
the downward trend of child poverty rates. Research shows that using the half
average income poverty line, child poverty fell from 14.3 per cent in 1990 to
13.1 per cent in 1996 and rose to 14.9 per cent in 2000. This means that some
743,000 children were living in poverty in 2000.
11.89 Of particular
concern to the Committee is the level of child poverty in families termed the 'working
poor'. In 1997-98 there were 163,000 children in working poor families. This is
a much larger number than previously estimated.
11.90 The Committee
endorses the calls for addressing child poverty as a national priority. The
cost of not doing so is too great. First, to have 15 per cent of all Australian
children living in poverty is far too high. This means that nearly one in seven
children are going without those things that other Australian children take for
granted: adequate food, shelter and clothing; access to books, computer
facilities and family outings; the opportunity to undertake activities outside
school such as sport and music lessons; and to have an optimistic outlook that
as an adult in Australia they will have a job that provides them with economic
security and a family that does not just survive but flourishes.
11.91 Secondly, the
cost of child poverty is far too high for children in poverty, their families
and the Australian economy and society. Children suffer through poor health,
from dysfunctional families and often abuse and neglect. Poverty is associated
with behavioural difficulties, low educational attainment and juvenile
offending. Isolation and lack of opportunity compound these problems. There are
direct costs to the economy of larger health, social welfare, education and
criminal justice expenditure. Indirectly, there are lost opportunity costs to
the economy as children do not meet their full potential and costs to society
through inequality and the erosion of social cohesion and the overall
diminished capabilities of the population.
11.92 The Committee
considers that child poverty must be addressed as a national priority. While it
is important to address the inadequacy of family incomes through greater
employment and adequate income support, the problem of child poverty is more
complex. There also needs to be a co-ordinated approach to providing services
and programs to disadvantaged areas. These services and programs need to cover
intensive services for children and families at risk; the provision of adequate
housing; early intervention programs; early childhood programs and improving
11.93 Longer term
preventative and early intervention programs are important to breaking the
cycle of intergenerational poverty. Targeting children and young people at risk
to improve their long term outcomes through family support, early childhood
education and prevention are a significant key to lasting improvements.
11.94 That the
Commonwealth, in cooperation with the States and Territories, develop a
comprehensive system of community-based early childhood and parenting support
for all families.
11.95 That the
Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments cooperate to ensure that
additional intensive services are funded for disadvantaged families
experiencing multiple and complex problems which impact on the care of
children. Further, that the provision of such services in Indigenous
communities be given a high priority.
11.96 That the Commonwealth
conduct an audit of existing rules relating to parents receiving income support
payments to ensure these do not place children at risk of hardship.
11.97 That the
Commonwealth develop and implement a community education campaign for new
parents aimed at improving the nutrition of children.
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