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Community life has not returned to normal

30 November 2022 at 7:32 pm
Trish Prentice
Scanlon Foundation Research Institute’s Social Cohesion study shows significant challenges in the not-quite-post-COVID world. But where to from here, asks Trish Prentice. 

Trish Prentice | 30 November 2022 at 7:32 pm


Community life has not returned to normal
30 November 2022 at 7:32 pm

Scanlon Foundation Research Institute’s Social Cohesion study shows significant challenges in the not-quite-post-COVID world. But where to from here, asks Trish Prentice. 

We know that Australian communities are still facing significant challenges and community life has not returned to “normal”. As concern over COVID-19 infections has declined, economic and cost of living challenges have become critical. Financial stress increased in 2022. 

The proportion of people who describe themselves as poor or struggling to pay bills increased from 7 per cent to 10 per cent this year, while the number of people who are “just getting along” increased from 24 per cent to 27 per cent. There are also more people dissatisfied with their financial situation (35 per cent). 

These are the findings of this year’s annual Scanlon Foundation Research Institute’s Mapping Social Cohesion study. 

This year’s Mapping Social Cohesion study recorded the views of almost 6,000 people on issues related to Australia’s social cohesion, government and community life. 

Interviews were also conducted with individuals from key sectors in community-facing roles, such as government, business and the community sector. 

Economic issues are now the biggest problem facing Australia, according to two in five of those people surveyed, and this reality is putting severe pressure on household finances, particularly in communities with high levels of pre-existing disadvantage. In some cases, economic pressures appear to be leading to severe forms of deprivation, most notably food insecurity, poverty and homelessness. All the while, COVID-19 continues to have a lingering impact through its effect on mental health, social connectedness, child development, skills shortages and the availability of trained personnel to help address these issues.

Connected communities, supportive of diversity and multiculturalism 

At the same time, positives are emerging. We know communities are still connected. The COVID-19 pandemic had a galvanising effect in some communities, helping to bring people together and support each other, including those from different national and cultural backgrounds. 

This year, almost half of those surveyed said they think most people can be trusted. More than eight-in-ten people agree that their neighbours are willing to help each other and get along well with each other and with people from different national and ethnic backgrounds. Trust and neighbourhood cohesion appear to have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and, encouragingly, remain above those levels recorded prior to the pandemic. 

Australian communities, especially those with high levels of ethnic and cultural diversity, continue to be vibrant, cohesive and well-connected places. Not only that, Australians still express strong support for multiculturalism and this only continues to grow. Seventy-eight per cent of people surveyed said they believe accepting immigrants makes Australia strong, and 86 per cent of people believe immigrants improve Australian society by bringing to it new ideas and cultures.

A strengthened community services sector

This connectedness has had flow on benefits to other areas of Australian society. The community services sector has changed and strengthened how it engages to meet the needs of its constituents. It has learned the importance of working together within the sector, and now has a greater sense of how to collaborate to ensure the needs of those it works with are met. There is less tendency to be siloed than before, and a greater willingness to work in partnership towards addressing community needs. 

Collaboration has improved, not just between community sector organisations but between organisations and their constituencies. Some community sector workers have reported that COVID-19 highlighted the critical importance of working with, as opposed to doing for, the community. There is growing realisation that community members can be leaders in informing how services are designed and configured and that individuals and communities are not just passive recipients. As service delivery has improved, especially for those from different cultural and national backgrounds, more people are starting to come forward to seek support, and some of the traditional barriers that have kept individuals from accessing services have started to fall away.

The challenges ahead

While these changes are positive and establish a powerful model for how services can work within their communities in the future, challenges remain. There are still gaps when it comes to providing in-language information and culturally appropriate support to meet community needs. Indeed, some community members still face language barriers that prevent them accessing services. There is also a great need for more culturally appropriate services in areas like mental health and family violence support. Sometimes services are available but in the ‘wrong’ format. For example, online service provision can be really useful and convenient for those with easy access to technology and data, but for those with poor access or little digital literacy, online service provision is a barrier to access.

People are also fatigued. The COVID-19 pandemic has had social and economic effects that have placed pressure on our communities. Many people feel they have been living in crisis for some time and they have not yet had a chance to process and recover from the events of the last few years. This is particular the case within the community services sector, which has been working at the coal face of community support (and witnessing first-hand the social and economic impacts of the pandemic). 

Looking forward, we must continue to draw upon the strengths that have emerged from the pandemic. People and communities are connected. They came together and supported each other during the crisis and this legacy within neighbourhoods is still strong. However, economic and financial pressures combined with the lingering social and mental health effects of the pandemic are weighing on individuals and communities, as is fatigue. 

To ensure Australia remains strong, we must continue to draw on the strength and resilience of individuals, the contributions of communities and the increasingly interconnected community services sector, to address the housing, health and skills challenges ahead, and to alleviate the effects of financial hardship and deprivation.

The 2022 Mapping Social Cohesion report can be accessed here.


Trish Prentice  |  @ProBonoNews

Trish Prentice is a senior researcher at Scanlon Foundation Research Institute.


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