Child poverty is a policy choice
18 October 2021 at 5:32 pm
Ending child poverty requires greater financial assistance for parents and carers, and a renewed political appetite for change, writes Deb Tsorbaris, CEO of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare.
In a country as affluent as Australia, it is an uncomfortable truth that one in six Australian children live in poverty. Of these children, many live in sole-parent families where poverty is disproportionately prevalent. Research conducted by the Australian National University found that poverty rates for children in single parent families have risen in the last three decades, from 25 per cent to almost 40 per cent. The solution to child poverty is remarkably simple, yet a lack of political appetite has rendered anti-poverty initiatives largely ineffective.
This week is Anti-Poverty Week, a week to support the Australian community to deepen their understanding of poverty and to act collectively to end it. With a federal election looming, we are presented with an important opportunity to build and leverage public pressure to compel the government and political parties to act.
The impact of poverty on children is often profound and enduring. While intervention measures such as targeted educational programs and free school meals can shield a child from some of these effects, the most effective way to protect a child and to prevent the intergenerational transmission of poverty is to raise the income of their caregivers to an adequate rate.
This has happened before, and it can happen again; increases to family assistance payments under the Hawke Labor government saw an almost instant decrease in child poverty of around 36 per cent – progress that was sadly undone by subsequent governments. Yet last year, the poverty rate dropped dramatically again (by around 32 per cent) upon introduction of the coronavirus supplement, a temporary $550 per fortnight payment for people receiving working-age Centrelink payments.
Research, co-authored by the Centre, revealed the far-reaching impact that the provision of adequate assistance and resources to parents and caregivers had on a child’s wellbeing. The study used an online survey to examine how people receiving social security payments used the $550 coronavirus supplement and how it impacted their everyday lives. The responses from the survey painted a clear picture of how the supplement had enabled parents and caregivers to provide for their children, purchasing essential items that they otherwise couldn’t, such as school supplies, birthday and Christmas presents, books, games, clothes and shoes. Parents and caregivers also reported being able to afford social outings and excursions, and more and better-quality food for the household, as well as being able to meet children’s healthcare expenses. Importantly, they noted that the extra income reduced stress, enabling them to be more attentive to their children. This illustrates the relational dimension of poverty that is too often overlooked by policymakers and decision-makers.
Despite the significant positive impact that the coronavirus supplement had on the lives of children and families experiencing vulnerability across Victoria, it has since been withdrawn. In its absence, this year the federal government has instead pursued a series of policies that serve to reverse the progress made in the previous year. For example, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Consistent Waiting Periods for New Migrants) Bill 2021, that is currently before Parliament, will increase the waiting period for newly arrived residents to access payments such as family tax benefits to four years. Imposing stricter waiting periods on the few supports available to newly arrived residents will only serve to elevate poverty rates, and to inflict additional hardship and financial stress upon many migrant families.
The federal government also continues to force certain cohorts of parents, mostly single parents, to participate in the ParentsNext pre-employment program under threat of payment suspension or cancellation. Research co-authored by the Centre found that payment suspensions trigger immediate crisis and financial difficulty, and preclude families from meeting their basic needs. Despite formal recognition by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights that mandatory participation in ParentsNext limits the rights of the child to social security and an adequate standard of living, the government refuses to budge on this damaging and counterproductive policy.
As we gradually re-open and ease restrictions, it is our duty to ensure that children are not left behind. Grim estimates predict that the rate of child poverty could exceed pre-pandemic levels if we allow it. We must act now. The Centre will continue to advocate on behalf of children whose voices are so often unheard, and to pressure our government to reverse upward trends in child poverty by immediately raising the rate of social security payments above the poverty line. We urge others to do the same.
Anti-Poverty Week 2021 runs from 17 to 23 October.