Dr Matthew ‘Tepi’ Mclaughlin (Telethon Kids Institute, the University of Western Australia); Professor Karen Thorpe, Professor Cameron Parsell, Professor Janeen Baxter, Associate Professor Wojtek Tomaszewski (The University of Queensland); Associate Professor Marian Vidal-Fernandez (University of Sydney); Professor Guyonne Kalb, Dr Barbara Broadway (University of Melbourne).
Shockingly, in 2022, more than 1 in 6 Australian children live below the poverty line. That’s 774,000 children.
This means children and families can’t cover the basics or not having a secure roof over their head. It’s associated with poorer school attendance, academic outcomes, and school completion rates; poorer mental, dental, and physical health; and higher social exclusion at school.
Worryingly, poverty rates in Australia have barely shifted over the last 20 years, and for children, they’re increasing.
This week is Anti-Poverty Week, and the call to action is a legislated plan to halve child poverty in Australia by 2030.
Here are five big ideas to reduce poverty and increase opportunities by better supporting children and families. We know what works, from research evidence and international experience.
1. Free high-quality childcare
Childcare is more than just ‘babysitting’. It is early childhood education. Free, high-quality childcare for all would be a great ‘leveller’ to set children up for the best start in life.
Globally, the vast majority of developed countries recognise a child’s right to education, but in practice, this right only kicks in at age five when formal schooling commences. Yet we can make most difference to children’s life chances and parents’ ability to escape poverty, in their first five years.
These years shape a child’s experiences, including brain development, affecting behaviour, and learning potential. These are when the balancing of financial and emotional care for families are most conflicted. At this time parents, typically women, lose income and career prospects.
Current Australian reforms to improve childcare access and affordability are important in enabling parent workforce participation and increasing family income. But quality matters. The evidence is clear – early education and care is key to improving children’s educational outcomes and health and wellbeing into adulthood, but only if quality is high.
Scandinavian countries provide high-quality childcare for all, alongside one year of paid parental leave. By doing this, they have not only achieved the strongest educational attainments when compared with others, but also very high levels of women’s workforce participation and lowered poverty levels.
2. Extended parental leave, focussed on fathers
Australia has made great strides toward improving women’s access to the labour market over the last few decades. For example, paid parental leave for all is helping women to stay connected to their employer and the labour force. But the latest World Economic Forum on gender inequality ranks Australia as 43rd compared to 15th in the world in 2006. We’re not keeping pace.
One area for improvement, as demonstrated by evidence from Scandinavian countries, is to support men to take on a greater share of unpaid care and domestic work. Australia currently provides fathers with only two weeks of paid paternity leave. This falls far short of the OECD average.
There is considerable evidence that enabling men to spend time at home with newborns strengthens father-child bonds, encourages men to remain involved as children grow older, supports the economy by enabling women to return to paid work, and improves family health and wellbeing.
Providing increased access to longer periods of paid paternity leave and encouraging men to take it up through ‘use it or lose it’ policies is one way to reverse the trend toward increasing gender inequality. At the same time, it strengthens family bonds and improves wellbeing for all.
If #PaidParentalLeave is to be expanded to 26 weeks in total, this also needs to increase the (use-it-or-lose-it) Dad & Partner allocation from 2 weeks to at least 3 weeks, to preserve current ratio
Otherwise this change could actually risk widening the gender gap in care
— Leonora Risse (@leonora_risse) October 15, 2022
3. Affordable and secure housing for all
Homelessness damages people’s lives, including their health, education, employment, capacity to care for family, safety, and even their ability to live with dignity. Having a roof over our heads is the basis of addressing poverty.
At the country level, Finland is near eradicating homelessness through huge societal investments in social housing. In Australia, successful housing initiatives include Street to Home programs, Melbourne’s Journey to Social Inclusion, and Brisbane’s Common Ground. These examples demonstrate that homelessness is a policy problem, and we can choose different policies.
— Life Course Centre (@lifecourseAust) October 13, 2022
4. Raising income support to a liveable level
Despite a recent increase, the JobSeeker allowance is only $334.20 per week for a single person, making renting out of reach for many.
— Life Course Centre (@lifecourseAust) October 17, 2022
This payment rate is clearly insufficient to live on without experiencing severe financial stress, especially for people depending on it long-term. Research shows that many non-employed, separated women end up in poverty, because they have to depend on income support such as JobSeeker.
For many, JobSeeker payments were almost doubled (up $275 per week) during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. These higher payments led to less financial stress, and less mental distress. This was evident when the supplement was $275 or $125 per week.
New @ACOSS @UNSW report shows the #Coronavirus Supplement lifted 646,000 out of poverty, incl 245,000 children in the biggest cut to child poverty in 20 years – we know the solutions to #EndChildPoverty see https://t.co/Lu05mmkvpK #APW #AntiPovertyWeek https://t.co/44Lz4GdspO
— Anti-Poverty Week (@AntiPovertyWeek) October 13, 2022
5. Educational opportunity from birth to university
Educational inequalities are endemic in Australia. Among OECD countries, Australia ranks in the bottom third for educational equality. Students from low socio-economic status families not only perform worse on standardised test scores, they also show lower levels of engagement with learning and have poorer school attendance.
Young people from disadvantaged families are also less likely to aspire to go to university, and consequently have lower university participation and completion rates, and poorer labour market outcomes after graduating from university.
This is a pressing policy problem because the economic returns to educational attainment are the highest among children from low socio-economic status families, influencing their educational attainment, earnings, welfare dependency, and health outcomes.
There are concrete measures that can help close the socio-economic gaps. In addition to solid academic foundations, encouraging the development of socio-emotional regulation and personality traits such as perseverance, and building strong growth mindsets and aspirations, are key to boosting all children’s potential and reducing educational inequalities.
Furthermore, strong career guidance can boost students’ engagement, and in turn improve their academic outcomes, while enabling them to make informed choices so they can realise their potential, regardless of their background.
Where to start?
The above solutions need political will and legislated targets to drive action.
In Anti-Poverty Week, we join the call to pass legislation to halve child poverty in Australia by 2030, with measurable targets and actions. Support the Anti-Poverty Week pledge here.
It’s 30 years since the UN declared 17/10 International Day for the Eradication of Poverty – coinciding with 20th year of #AntiPovertyWeek. Join our call https://t.co/Lu05mmkvpK #EndChildPoverty pic.twitter.com/T6VJRYM1of
— Anti-Poverty Week (@AntiPovertyWeek) October 17, 2022
This year, Anti-Poverty Week (16-22 October 2022) is calling on Australia to legislate a plan to halve child poverty by 2030 to meet our commitments to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The authors of this piece are affiliated with The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course (Life Course Centre). Life Course Centre is a national research centre investigating the critical factors underlying deep and persistent disadvantage to provide new knowledge and life-changing solutions for policy, service providers, and communities.