The spider web of disadvantage - Andrew Hamilton for Eureka Street

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Suburbs and equity are topical this week. One report showed that affluent suburbs benefited more from the last Federal budgets than did poor suburbs. That is hardly surprising. Another report brought up to date a ground-breaking 2007 analysis that identified the most disadvantaged suburbs and regions in Australia.

Both these reports challenge the economic orthodoxies professed by all governments today. They identify a person’s worth with their economic contribution. They minimise the importance of communities for personal well-being, see public funding of social programs as an anomaly, and stigmatise individuals as losers and parasites for their failure to participate in the economy.
Governments that lean towards this view are likely to cut the public service without asking what they need from it for good policy and administration, and to reward the economically successful and punish with financial penalties and reporting requirements individuals who do not connect with society. When governments must respond to public pressure to meet some social need, they will do it through over-hyped short term programs that are narrowly targeted at single aspects of the need.
Such programs inevitably fail to live up to their hype and confirm the view that social funding is a waste of money. This leads to more cuts to the public services, less attention to disadvantaged community to more intervention and punishment for people who do not contribute, and to even less interest in why people are disadvantaged.
That is why the publication of Dropping off the Edge 2015, which extends a 2007 study and compares its findings with today, is so timely. The report, which is a joint initiative of Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services Australia, shows how and where people are disadvantaged, how their disadvantage that hinders them from participating in society can be addressed, and why flexible government coordination of programs is essential.
The study identifies many aspects of disadvantage that can be measured and demonstrably hinder people from making their way in life. They cover such things as access to the internet, housing stress, family income, level of education and post-school qualifications, skills, engagement in study or work, readiness for school, eligibility for disability support, unemployment benefits and rent assistance, numeracy and reading at Year 3 and Year 9, child maltreatment, juvenile and criminal convictions, domestic violence, and prison and mental health admissions.
Using these criteria the study was able to rank postcodes and regions in order of disadvantage. It found that most of the postcodes and regions that were identified in 2007 as the most highly disadvantaged remained so in 2015.
One of the most significant features of disadvantage is that is not simply a state in which you live but a process. It is like being trapped in a spider web where with each movement you are entangled with other threads. So it is important not to focus simply on each aspect of disadvantage but to examine the connection between them. So, for example, the effect of dropping out of school will be magnified if your parents are unemployed and you have come under the juvenile justice system. The combination of different aspects of disadvantage has a more deleterious effect than does the sum of the aspects taken singly.
It follows that those who live in areas marked by severe disadvantage will find it difficult to overcome the effects of disadvantage. It also means that projects in these areas will need to be coordinated so as to address the interlocking aspects of disadvantage, to be sustained for many years, and to engage the local community.
Ultimately disadvantage brings dislocation to all the relationships with others and with the world that nurture and give people the skills and confidence to connect with society. To overcome it demands strengthening the web of relationships, particularly in the local community. Unless programs resource the local community so that it owns what is done within it and takes initiatives to encourage change, growth to connection will not be sustained.
Reflection on the social reality of disadvantage shows that it is destructive to blame individuals for their failure to study, work and be economically productive. It is even more destructive to punish them for the consequences of their disadvantage. They need help to escape from the cycle of disadvantage.
Disadvantage has identifiable social roots and must be addressed in a coordinated and reflective way. It is very costly in its effect on human lives, as well as in the costs incurred through hospitals and prisons of the failure to address it. Its persistence over eight years in the same regions shows that to address it will require sustained government funding and flexible coordination.
 
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