Government and governance, Social policy | Australia, The World

16 October 2019

New research reveals that many young Australians are living without basic items that they value. A child-focused framework that acknowledges young people’s agency is a way forward on poverty, Anne Hampshire writes.   

Over a million, or one in six, children and young people in Australia are living in poverty. These numbers highlight the scale and depth of child poverty in Australia. These numbers are unacceptable, given what we know about the negative impacts of poverty.

These 1.1 million young people are defined as living in poverty because they live in homes where the household income is 50 per cent below the median Australian household income. This approach treats children as invisible, assuming they do not contribute to the family’s income or spending. While these numbers can be helpful, they give us no sense of how children specifically experience poverty.

With numbers alone, it’s not possible to know whether they miss out on the things that they value, or how this impacts on their well-being, connection to school, and other key dimensions of their lives.

New research looks at child poverty in a different way. It explores what young Australians see as essential for all young people to live a ‘normal’ life. It acknowledges young people’s agency and sheds light on poverty from the perspective of young people themselves, which is essential if we are to better understand and respond to this difficult and complex issue.

More on this: Changing the story on child poverty

Research from two groups, government high school students, and a similar group of financially disadvantaged students shows there is a consensus on what young Australians see as essential.

Contrary to how we often see young people portrayed, the 18 items they identified are modest. The list included three meals a day, clothes for school, parks, school excursions, and money to pay for activities outside of school.

Opportunities to spend time with family and friends on an annual holiday or having a meal out once a month were also highly valued by young people in both groups. The location of these activities generally didn’t matter, their value lay in how they helped young people develop strong family relationships and provide time to really relax and reconnect away from the stresses of everyday life.

Technology items such as computers and Internet access at home were also seen as essential, with young people linking them with their ability to engage and participate in school. Certainly, none of the things identified as essential could reasonably be described as over the top or luxurious.

More on this: Monitoring poverty – Australia needs to raise its game

Most importantly, the research highlights the extent to which financially disadvantaged young Australians are deprived of these essentials and the impact of this on their lives.

Two in five of the young people living with financial disadvantages reported lacking at least three items their peers had deemed were ‘essential’ for all young Australians. One in ten were deprived of seven or more.

Young people confirmed the impact of being deprived of these essential items.

Those experiencing deeper or more severe disadvantages reported lower levels of life satisfaction and less control over their lives.

There is also a clear negative relationship between the degree of deprivation young people experience and their positivity about the future, family cohesion, sense of safety, enjoyment in school, and how well they feel they are doing at school.

The value of this approach when coupled with conventional poverty measures, is that it highlights the extent to which young Australians are missing out on items which they value highly.

More on this: Policy File: Poverty’s many dimensions

The research shows that deprivation among children and young people is an obstacle that prevents many of them realising their full potential. It shows the impact of child poverty reaches well into young people’s futures – it shows that child poverty matters.

Ultimately, it also exposes an urgent need for Australia to more actively tackle child poverty and work to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of halving the number of children in poverty by 2030.

There is no better time than Anti-Poverty Week for more intentional collective action to contribute to this goal.

A child-focused approach, given that it draws on the perceptions, attitudes, experiences, and aspirations of young people themselves, provides a credible framework for better understanding poverty and importantly can contribute to our collective efforts to more effectively address it.

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