Living without the essentials

| November 27, 2018

A pioneering study exploring poverty and disadvantage through the lens of young Australians has found a significant number are missing out on items and experiences deemed essential for living a normal life, such as fresh fruits and vegetables every day, internet access at home, school excursions, family holidays and some money of their own.

Researchers from UNSW Sydney say the study sheds important new light on the nature of child poverty, including its impact on wellbeing and attitudes to schooling.

The Material Deprivation and Social Exclusion Among Young Australians: A Child-Focused Approach report was produced by a collaboration between the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) at UNSW, the NSW Office of the Advocate for Children and Young People, The Smith Family and the NSW Department of Education.

Professor Peter Saunders, the study’s lead researcher from SPRC, said while the approach had been used successfully with adults both in Australia and internationally, the report marked the first time it had been used to measure child poverty in Australia.

“This study represents the first attempt to measure deprivation and exclusion through the eyes of young Australians who are typically treated as passive and invisible in poverty research,” said Professor Saunders.

“It is normally assumed they make no contributions to household income or spending, and that their views mirror those of their parents or carers. This report is grounded in and builds on children’s own views and experiences, giving a multidimensional perspective on poverty that has not previously been available.”

While the traditional approach looks at the incomes of young people’s parents or carers to determine whether a young person is in poverty, this new approach gives voice and agency to young people themselves.

The study identified 18 essential items grouped into two broad categories: one that captures material deprivation – the lack of ‘things’ like a computer or mobile device; and social exclusion – the lack of doing ‘activities’ like a meal out with family or an annual holiday away.

The findings reflect responses to a survey completed by almost 2700 NSW government high school students (GHS) in Years 7 to 10 and about 340 financially disadvantaged students in The Smith Family’s Learning for Life program (LFL).

Key findings from the research include the strong consensus among young people who participated in the research about which items are essential: having three meals a day (96.1 per cent GHS; 96.4 per cent LFL); fruit or vegetables at least once per day (96 per cent GHS; 94.6 per cent LFL); clothes needed for school (94.7 per cent GHS; 96.7 per cent LFL); access to public transportation (92.1 per cent GHS; 93.4 per cent LFL).

Significant proportions of both groups experience severe deprivation, that is, they are deprived of at least three essential items. About one in five (18.7 per cent) of the government high schools sample and two in five (40.4 per cent) of The Smith Family Learning for Life sample experience severe deprivation.

Those experiencing higher levels of deprivation (identified using a new Child Deprivation Index derived by the researchers) are shown to have lower levels of wellbeing in many dimensions, such as overall life satisfaction, positivity about the future and connectedness to family, friends and community.

Those experiencing higher levels of deprivation are also generally less satisfied with their schooling, less likely to be doing well at school and to regard getting good school marks as important.

While a majority of both groups feel safe at school, significant proportions indicate that they don’t enjoy school, nor do they feel part of their school community. This is important given the relationship between young people’s sense of belonging at school and their likely longer-term engagement in education.

Anne Hampshire, Head of Research and Advocacy at The Smith Family, said the research should inform discussions about child poverty in Australia and provide an evidence base for policy development aimed at reducing the very large number of young Australians living in poverty.

“Deprivation in young people is an obstacle that prevents many of them from realising their full potential,” Hampshire said. “There are important policy implications from this research.

“Addressing the deprivation of young people who are most severely affected could positively impact on a range of important life outcomes. For example, reducing young people’s deprivation may improve negative attitudes to schooling and in turn improve their school performance.”

Australia is among the 193 governments that have adopted the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of reducing, by at least half, the proportion of children living in poverty by 2030. Hampshire said the report, albeit concentrated on one jurisdiction, underscores the urgent need for Australia to be vigilant about tackling child poverty to achieve its SDG targets.

“We must be able to identify where poverty and other forms of disadvantage exist, to measure and better understand it, and through that, to more effectively address it,” said Professor Saunders.

“The child-focussed approach provides a credible framework for achieving this by building on perceptions, attitudes, experiences and aspirations of young people themselves. It can contribute to helping shape a better Australia.”

You can view the report on the Social Policy Research Centre website

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