Week 7 – Workshop Resources: Childhood Poverty

Case Studies

Until recently I had no clear picture of just what that phrase [child poverty] meant. What it means is that my children and many more besides are unlikely to reach their full potential due to the increasing inequality in Australian society. This is not due to lack of parental effort, but the reality is that income support payments are below the poverty line to begin with.

Intelligence and diligence will not change the reality that:

• My children have fewer sporting and cultural opportunities.

• My children are discriminated against due to our family status.

• My children are disadvantaged in life simply because I cannot afford to provide the same opportunities that other families can.

• The level of education I can afford for my children will differ from those who do not live in a Sole Parent family.

• Due to the reality that income payments are already below the poverty line our government in effect keeps my children in poverty.

• The Child Support Agency is not always effective and contributes to higher levels of poverty due to their inability to collect financial support from the children’s father.

Submission 38, Ms J Maynard (Page 251).

First and foremost, inadequate income means that families have great difficulty in meeting the basic costs of living. To give you an example, one of our families living in the northern suburbs has an income level of $27,000 per year and four children. Education costs in February of this year were $8,000 to send their children back to school. You cannot tell me that that is financial hardship; that is poverty. A family on $27,000 a year cannot afford $8,000 to send four kids back to school at the beginning of the year. That is not a choice decision; that is the reality.

Committee Hansard 30, Anglicare Victoria (Page 251).

They talk about the painful decisions that people on low incomes have to make: the choice between a carton of milk and paying for a school excursion; the sense of failure that families face in having to tell their children that they cannot have a pair of shoes, they cannot go on excursion, they cannot participate in normal activities. The stress is a huge factor, leading to poor health, breakdown in relationships and family instability.

Committee Hansard 2.5.03, TASCOSS (Page 251).

My mum makes $194 a week and she’s got four kids to feed. It’s just not enough. She’s got enough to put food in the kids but then she’s got nothing left and when the electricity bill comes in they have to eat less food.

Submission 133, UnitingCare (Page 252).

All those negative thoughts you have because you have no money the kids pick up on it. They say things like: ’Why can’t we have a tin of Milo?’ How do you say, ’This is all I’ve got’?

Submission 32, Tasmanian Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (Page 252).

They just do not send their children on the days when there are excursions. They just stay home. I have spoken to mothers. I used to live in Port Willunga and we had one primary school there. About 10 kilometres away there was another primary school in Willunga. Some parents did not send their children to our local school. For whatever reason, there was no school bus, there was not really public transport that was going from one village to the other so the parents had to drive their children. If there was no petrol, the kids would stay home. That would happen regularly at the end of the fortnight. That is where the $200 was missing when the budget came in. You save petrol money if you do not take them to school.

Committee Hansard 29.5.03, Australian National Organisation of the Unemployed (Page 252).

My daughter goes to Ogilvie High [publicly-run girls’ high school], that’s our choice. But the uniform breaks us. You have to have special socks, pants, blazer. We buy it all second hand and sell it as soon as she’s grown out of it but it still costs a fortune and she’s growing fast. My daughter is very musical but we don’t have any money for music lessons. There’s no money for school trips or singing lessons. She’d love to be in the school choir but if you are, you have to travel. We can’t set aside the $1-2000 they ask for. It makes me feel really guilty as a father. My daughter is very confident because we’ve worked hard to help her be like that. She could do these things. Having to say no is heartbreaking for her and us.

Submission 32, Tasmanian Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (Page 252).

The Tasmanian Commissioner for Children provided a graphic example of the way in which poverty extends beyond even poor social skills:

The most impoverished section of the community are children because they are the most invisible their parents are least able to articulate that huge disadvantage they have because their poverty boils down even to the language. They are not able to articulate. For example, when I went to talk to a young person in a juvenile justice centre, I asked him his date of birth. He looked at me blankly till one of his friends jabbed him in the ribs and said, ’When is your birthday, mate?’ He had not heard the term ’date of birth’. That was not part of his vocabulary. That kind of entrenched poverty is even in language, and they cannot articulate it (Page 254).

Children from poorer families are less able to afford to go out with friends or keep up regular social contacts. They have less pocket money than other children and don’t have the same toys or games. Children living in poverty may feel unable to invite friends’ home because they live differently to their friends. One parent described this situation:

Like my daughter, she has friends who come from fairly well-off homes, and I find that after a while the friendship cools off. The others can do this and do that but she can’t and if affects the relationships (Page 254).

The Impact of Poverty on Children’s Health

A service providers perspective:

Within the last two weeks on a local housing estate we have experienced an epidemic of impetigo and scabies in children, from babies to teenagers. There were small babies covered in weeping sores which were aggravated by an underlying scabies infection which made them scratch and was extremely painful. There were babies who had lived with this condition for months. These children were living in households of up to 15 on a high-density housing estate. Many of their parents had poor English and had not accessed health care cards as they were unaware of their entitlements, or language and cultural barriers had prevented them from attending Centrelink.

Public transport to get to medical attention is expensive, as the only accident and emergency services are located in areas such as Wollongong or Shellharbour, which require an expensive private bus trip, one which parents could not afford. Even if they accessed their local doctor, many did not have Medicare cards for bulkbilling, and anyway they could not afford the medication. So, children went untreated. Barnardos, when it became aware of this situation, approached the public health system to attempt to address the problem. They had no services which could meet these children’s needs. There was no public health response, due to lack of resources, so no assistance was given.

We managed to convince a local general practitioner to visit our community centre on the estate in his lunchtime, see the 15 children who attended on that day, and issue scripts. Luckily, the department of community services very generously agreed to pay for the $500 worth of scripts that were required for these 15 children and treatment could then progress. We had workers supervising the initial treatment for families to make sure it worked. The average cost per script was $40 for three medications necessary to treat the illness, a charge which was way beyond affordability for these families.

Our concern is what happens next time. This was a response to a crisis which worked this time for the 15 children involved. It worked because of the personal networks staff had in the area to pull services together at short notice. On this same estate we have experienced long periods of head lice outbreaks, leading to disruption in children’s education, as do the impetigo and scabies. We have searched for dollars to purchase head lice treatment, to no avail. In the end, because parents cannot afford the treatment, they shave their kid’s heads.

Children who attend the schools are then taunted and teased because they are bald and dirty. The consequence is that they do not attend school. Untreated childhood diseases which are a direct result of family poverty affect children’s education. Simple childhood diseases should not disable our children.

Committee Hansard 2.7.03, Barnardos Australia – South Coast NSW (Page 257).

A GPs experience:

If I had to give a kind of stereotyped chronology of what I see happens with my patients and I look at just an 18-year cycle, what I can see is a patient who might have sporadic antenatal care because their mother does not get proper antenatal care, they are not breast fed or are only breast fed for a week or two, they are put onto cow’s milk too early and are then put onto solids and given largely a sugar and trans-saturated fat diet. Then by preschool and when I see them, when they are four or five or younger, they have terrible teeth, which are like a window to their health. They have dental caries, recurrent upper respiratory tract infections, otitis media and a kind of obesity we are seeing now among the poor…

There is no one-on-one language development for many of these kids and no books. There is an environment of violence at home, late nights, no sleep and sporadic attendance at school, with them leaving school at grade 8 or 9 or 10 virtually illiterate and virtually innumerate.

As GPs we see that on a daily basis, and there are some points to take from that. We tend to be brought up with the notion that people get obese because they eat too much good food, whereas what is being evidenced now in the literature is that people are eating too much junk food and getting fat but they are malnourished. Despite the fact that they are overweight, they are malnourished because of a large diet of sugar in various forms soft drinks and so forth and trans saturated fat intakes. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that peri-natal nutrition, nutrition during the first few months of life is vitally important to long-term health care.

Committee Hansard 4.8.03, Dr Theo van Lieshout (an Ipswich GP) (Page 258).

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 251 – 258.