Childhood Poverty in Australia

A hand up not a hand out

UnitingCare Burnside has reported that children in poverty are at significantly greater risk of developing mental health and behavioural problems such as delinquency, depressive and anxiety disorders, substance abuse etc. A West Australian study found that as parental income fell, the incidence of mental health problems increased: an average of 15 per cent of the children in the upper three quintiles of income suffered mental health problems, the proportion increased in the lowest two quintiles to 19 per cent and 25 per cent respectively (Page 256).

There is evidence that poverty and associated disadvantage are significant factors in youth suicide. Studies have shown that those in low paid jobs – where there is low job autonomy and lower promotional prospects, tend to have higher suicide rates. It was also found that youth suicide is related to unemployment, greater dependency and poverty. Burnside concluded that ’while it needs to be remembered that there are significant other influences on suicide, notably mental health concerns, the significance of poverty including the vulnerability it creates to other problems, should not be discounted’ (Page 256).

Poverty places great strains on family relationships and children may be living in households suffering from dysfunctional relationships. Poverty also undermines parenting with studies finding that economic and social stress leads to parents being less nurturing and more rejecting of their children. Children living in poverty have a higher incidence of child abuse and neglect and their parents have poorer parenting skills. As noted by the Child and Family Welfare Association of Australia (CAFWAA), “while most poor families do not abuse or neglect their children research collectively identifies poverty as the single most significant condition connected to child abuse and neglect” (Page 258).

While noting that parenthood can at times be stressful, Barnardos stated that ’financial resources can make the difference as to whether or not behaviour towards children remains socially acceptable’. Poverty affects parents’ relationship with their children because of social isolation, lack of access to information about parenting and conditions of the parent-child interaction (attitudes in childrearing, which includes a sense of hopelessness and predisposition to violence). Social isolation leaves children vulnerable as parents get little relief through emergency support; there is a lack of social policing; and there is a lack of emotional and practical support. Poverty also means that parents cannot afford babysitting, quality childcare or social or sports activities. Parents in poverty are also more likely to suffer from ill health and to have children who are ill.

UnitingCare Burnside concluded that:

“Under these circumstances it is understandable that some parents have a less informed or unrealistic understanding of parenting and children’s behaviour. When these obstacles are compounded by significant additional burdens such as substance abuse or mental illness the tasks of parenting can seem insurmountable and family life becomes a landscape of unrelenting trouble (Page 259).”

Social and economic costs of child poverty

UnitingCare Burnside identified many of the social and economic costs of child poverty:

  • learning difficulties and delayed cognitive development increases costs of special education and remedial education services in pre-schools. In later life there are substantial costs associated with school failure, reduced school retention rates, lower employment, productivity and taxation revenue and increased income support payments and other costs associated with unemployment (Page 260).
  • costs associated with mental health problems and behavioural difficulties include provision of specialist teachers for students with behavioural problems, costs of community mental health services, GP services, and inpatient and out-patient mental health and psychiatric services (Page 260).
  • lower health status results in higher utilisation of many health services including GPs, community health services and hospitals (Page 260).
  • ineffective parenting results in increased direct and indirect costs across a broad spectrum of services; and child abuse and neglect carry an enormous financial cost. Costs include expenditure on government agencies having statutory responsibility for child protection and investigation of child abuse and neglect. There are also costs for police, courts and very significant costs related to the provision of out-of-home care (Page 206).

The South Australian Government estimated that in 1995-96 $355 million was expended because of child abuse and neglect. This included $2 million by welfare, health, education and justice agencies in responding to known incidence of child abuse and neglect; $10 million in responding to child abuse and neglect not reported to child protection agencies; and $303 million in further costs including disability, injury and the subsequent effects on the future parenting ability of the child. You can only imagine what the costs would be now (Page 260).

Witnesses also pointed to the cost of intergenerational poverty where there is a cycle of deprivation. Children living in poverty are more likely to experience adult poverty with a huge cost to society generally. There was evidence from welfare agencies that two and even three generations of families were being assisted by agencies (Page 261).

Unitingcare Burnside concluded:

[We] would like to emphasise that providing resources will be most important where children’s developmental opportunities are most compromised, ie for children and families in poverty. To maximise our nation’s capacity for growth and innovation we need a healthy, competent population across all socio-economic levels” (Page 261).

Reference: Senate Community Affairs References Committee Secretariat, E. Humphery, C. McDonald, P. Short, L. Peake, and I. Zappe. (2004). A hand up not a hand out: Renewing the fight against poverty, Report on poverty and financial hardship. The Senate Community Affairs References Committee Secretariat, Senate Printing Unit, Parliament House, Canberra. Pages 256 – 261.