Cycle of disadvantage is getting worse each generation
At the heart of the Australian ‘fair go’ is the belief that our society provides every individual with the opportunity to make the most of their lives, regardless of their parental or family background.
A commendable ethic indeed, but how real is it in practice?
Are we really giving our children the chance to grow up masters of their own destiny, or are we (unintentionally or not) confining them to tread the same footprints as their parents?
For too many of our disadvantaged kids, the ‘fair go’ is far gone.
Last week saw the release of the latest research from the Youth in Focus project, undertaken by the Federal Government, Australian National University and University of Melbourne.
It compared the life histories, attitudes and outcomes of young people whose parents have received welfare payments for varying lengths of time, with those who have never received benefits.
Their findings showed that young people from long-term welfare-dependent families did much less well on almost every education and health measure, with behavioural ramifications as well, including their development of a work ethic.
Breaking the cycle of disadvantage has never been more important if we are to improve the life chances of these children, but in the words of one of the researchers at ANU, Professor Deborah Cobb-Clark, the solution is ‘not just more money’, because the gap between the kids at the top and bottom of the social ladder appears to be getting bigger.
In terms of income inequality, Australia is already one of the most unequal societies of the developed world, and increasing the hand outs to disadvantaged families is unlikely to provide them with the hand up they need to make a better life for themselves in the long run.
This month, The Smith Family released a new community service announcement that makes clear the importance of education in adopting a preventive approach to breaking this cycle of disadvantage.
It is a message that we have been communicating ever since we undertook to comprehensively transform The Smith Family in 1999 from a welfare organisation to one that provides disadvantaged kids with educational support and learning opportunities.
We would all agree that no child should have to attend school without the right uniform, or even stationery, but this still occurs more often than many of us would dare to admit in this country. And much more than that, no child should be deprived of the essential learning that takes place outside of the classroom, which can reinforce school lessons.
This includes mentoring and tutoring, participation in sports or the arts, which their parents may not be able to offer, simply because they can’t afford to.
These life lessons are so crucial to wellbeing and personal development for any young person, but remain out of reach for many.
What the Youth in Focus research makes clear is that without support from the earliest point, disadvantaged parents can inadvertently pass an intrinsic hardship onto their children which then becomes more difficult to shake as one gets older and more entrenched in the status quo.
It calls to mind a West Australian student who, with the support of The Smith Family, has become the first Aboriginal student to graduate from his high school in 10 years.
He confided in us that his parents never had the same opportunities to get an education as he’d had. Both parents were denied the chance to complete even a few years of high school, but fiercely believed in the value of education for their children.
This strength of will and determination for a better future for their children is admirable and yet heartbreaking upon the realisation that it’s sometimes simply not enough.
This same student told us he had been determined to drop out of school at the earliest possible opportunity, but had found outside support at a crucial time which he credits with his later achievement.
The best intentions of his parents were not enough to shield him from falling grades and the social pressures of the schoolyard, but he nonetheless escaped the trap of disadvantage young people can easily fall into.
There are many students in this situation who need that extra boost to break the mould and it is fantastic to see the look on parents’ faces as their children succeed in the face of hardship they themselves were never empowered to overcome.
To the thousands of generous Aussies who support our work we are extremely thankful, but our gratitude can never top that of our students and their families.
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