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Affluent but unequal: how the urban-regional divide is affecting Australian children

25 July 2022 at 4:50 pm
Deb Tsorbaris
Australia might be one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but that doesn't mean everyone has access to the same support and services, writes CFECFW’s Deb Tsorbaris.

Deb Tsorbaris | 25 July 2022 at 4:50 pm


Affluent but unequal: how the urban-regional divide is affecting Australian children
25 July 2022 at 4:50 pm

Australia might be one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but that doesn’t mean everyone has access to the same support and services, writes CFECFW’s Deb Tsorbaris.

Australia’s affluence can be seen in its cities: trendy coffee shops litter pristine streets against a backdrop of high-rise buildings from Melbourne to Perth. There’s data to back it up; Australia has the twentieth highest GDP per capita in the world, ahead of Japan, the UK and Canada, and boasts the fifth highest quality of life.

Affluence is often harder to come by in regional and rural areas. The vastness of Australia is ingrained in its national identity, cultivating a culture of preparedness, resourcefulness, and hardiness that is recognisably Aussie both at home and abroad. However, with such vastness comes enormous challenges. Remote communities frequently lack the access to the services and amenities that urban Australians enjoy, and are generally less prosperous than their urban contemporaries. Regional and rural areas have fewer schools, hospitals, and civil services, and many residents report feeling excluded from public debates that affect their fate at both the state and federal levels. People living in regional or remote areas are less likely to complete year 12 or higher education and have lower incomes than urban Australians, despite having to pay more for goods and services. Data from 2017 shows that Australians living outside capital cities had 19 per cent less weekly household income and 30 per cent less household net worth than those living in capital cities.

Healthcare is more difficult to access in rural and remote areas due to challenges associated with geographic spread, low population density, limited infrastructure, and the higher costs of delivering healthcare outside of cities which are not accounted for in funding models. People living outside major cities are also 1.4 times more likely to experience family violence.

All of this means that children, families, and the services that support them are under more strain in regional Australia than in other parts of the country. Lower educational attainment, a higher rate of poverty, and limited access to healthcare and other services make life harder for children and families living in remote areas, and this is reflected in higher rates of crime and drug abuse in some rural and remote communities. Children outside of major cities commonly have fewer opportunities, and data indicates that there is a greater likelihood of children in remote or rural areas experiencing abuse and interacting with social services and the criminal justice system later in life. For these children, more is needed to ensure access to opportunities and the support they need.

States are governed from their capital cities, by a body of individuals elected to represent the people. Sadly, by virtue of a dispersed population, the wants and needs of people in regional and remote areas can be as diverse as the landscape they inhabit, rendering effective and representative governance an onerous task. What we’re seeing is that many communities outside of the main cities are getting left behind.

Indigenous Australians have a history of being not only left behind, but also forcibly excluded. Indigenous Australians are more likely to live in rural or remote areas, accounting for 32 per cent of remote and very remote communities compared to less than 2 per cent of major city populations. Indigenous communities have lower life expectancies, poorer health outcomes, lower wages, and face greater barriers to education and employment opportunities than non-Indigenous Australians due to limited access to public services and widespread discrimination. This must change.

Despite promises of inclusion and prosperity for the regions, it appears clear that many children and families in these areas are not getting their fair share of the pie, and it is manifesting itself in the child protection system, the judiciary system, and the healthcare system.

Regional and rural communities are the backbone of Australian agriculture, which feeds us while powering our economy. With climate change adding visible and alarming pressure on the agricultural sector, we increasingly need to refine our focus on supporting the rural communities who sustain this critical industry.

There is an urgent need to address the housing crisis, which is most acute in the regions, through the provision of social housing in areas where demand is highest. To tackle issues in the delivery of services, regional communities recognise the difficulty in attracting and retaining workforces and acknowledge that more needs to be done to make working in regional communities more appealing. Furthermore, the concentration of services in regional towns makes it difficult for those living on the outskirts or beyond to access the services they require. For these people, a more equitable distribution of resources is required, in addition to improved tech infrastructure that would connect them to the rest of the country and lessen some of the difficulties of living off grid. Assertive financial support and policies that account for the added expenses and challenges associated with remote service delivery would support regional communities and have a levelling up effect. Finally, a greater recognition of Aboriginal ways of being, knowing and doing in healthcare, child care, and service delivery would benefit not only Aboriginal communities but entire regions that live in the shadows of Australia’s cities.

With around 90 per cent of Australians residing in cities, the diverse and unique needs of regional and remote communities are too often unaddressed. But equality and prosperity in regional and rural areas can be achieved, which many regional communities across the country are successfully demonstrating.

Regional and rural communities are developing innovative and creative solutions to overcome the unique challenges they face, but this must be matched with a concerted effort led by all levels of government. The pandemic had a dampening effect on the wellbeing of children and families throughout Australia, and this should be recognised in public policy going forward. Governments need to listen, learn, and legislate to guarantee that children and families receive the highest level of care, service delivery and support, no matter where they are.

Deb Tsorbaris  |  @ProBonoNews

Deb Tsorbaris is the CEO of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, the peak body for child and family services in Victoria.

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