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Impact of Economic Disadvantage on Children in Australia

By - 23rd August 2012

Guest Post by Anne Hampshire, Head of Research and Advocacy, The Smith Family

As an adult, it can be easy to forget what life was like growing up, to remember what mattered most, whose opinion counted and the daily decisions that needed to be made. And it can be easy, to imagine that all young people’s lives are pretty much the same.

Understanding what it’s like to navigate the world today from a young person’s perspective is important for parents, carers, teachers and anyone concerned about young people’s wellbeing.

Being an organisation that supports disadvantaged young people to participate in education, it’s particularly important that at The Smith Family we understand how these young people make decisions and prioritise what’s important to them, if we’re going to be best able to support them.

The University of NSW’s Social Policy Research Centre, in partnership with a range of non-government and government agencies, has recently released research that uniquely captures the experiences and insights of young people living in economic adversity. The Making a Difference study interviewed around 100 young people aged 11 to 17 years over an 18 month period. It offers a rare view on their experiences, how they cope with disadvantage and what they think can be done about it.

1 in 7 Australian Kids Live in Economic Adversity
The Making a Difference study helps us to get behind the statistics about disadvantage. Currently, 14 percent of Australian children - or around 1 in 7 - are in households living on less than 50 percent of Australia’s median household income. While this can place a lot of stress on parents, it can also place particular pressures on the children living in these families.

Making a Difference helps us better understand that many young people are missing out on things we assume all young Australians have access to, that they’re taking on significant responsibilities in their households and they are adapting their preferences to suit their economic circumstances.  

Young People Missing Out
The young people who were interviewed for the study were aged 11 to 17 and they had fairly modest needs and wants. Even so, many were missing out on things like being able to go on a school camp or excursion, or participating in local sport and recreational activities. Some weren’t able to have friends over at home or found it hard to find a quiet space to do homework because they were living in pretty crowded housing – one family of eight for example, was living in a three bedroom home.

Perhaps even more striking was the fact that some young people consciously chose less expensive subjects at school, particularly elective subjects which can attract additional costs (e.g. for materials), as a way of easing pressure on their family’s household budget. This meant they sometimes chose subjects they weren’t particularly interested in and which didn’t match their natural skills and abilities.  Many young people had repeated experiences of missing out in a range of education-related areas, because the additional schooling costs of a ‘free’ education were too high.

   "I think that it’s pretty easy [for my family to meet school costs] 'cos I don’t pick very expensive subjects, plus I don’t go on camps because I don’t like them, so that’s saved my parents, like, $1,000." (Annabel, 16 years).

The experience of ‘missing out’ often deeply affected young people’s sense of self and engagement with education. When young people regularly missed out on the experiences and activities accessible to their peers, they narrowed their interests and desires and adapted their preferences, as a way of protecting themselves and their parents from having to say ‘no’ – a response that we might more usually associate with adults rather than young people.

  "I wouldn’t want to ask because I feel sorry for them."  (Tessa, aged 15, on asking her parents for money)

The Importance of Family
A clear message from the research was that while many of the young people had complex and diverse family circumstances, family was incredibly important to most of them, and they spoke positively about their families and home lives. They also tried to contribute to the family in many ways.

Many young people contributed through taking on significant domestic chores. These contributions were essential to enabling the family to function and for other family members to generate income. Joe, for example, who is 15, cares for his sister who has a disability. He’s responsible for getting her ready for school each day, picks her up after school and cares for her each afternoon until his parents come home. This enables his father and mother to engage in employment and further training which they see as essential for helping their family to get ahead. Other young people consciously saved whatever they could, in an effort to be able to make a contribution to the family.

  "I keep all my money, I save it. So that if anything bad happens, if Mum can’t pay a bill,
 I’ll give it to her to pay it off."

Others took on part-time employment themselves or looked for creative ways they could participate in activities while limiting the burden that placed on their family.

   "I would have to somehow make a deal with the club, like I don’t get a trophy at the end of the year so it saves a couple of bucks, I don’t know. Somehow we would make a deal! Get it cheaper." Max, aged 14 (explaining that his family wouldn’t be able to afford the fees to play cricket and that he’d need to find other ways if he wanted to play).  

Physical Environment Affects a Child's Sense of Wellbeing
The young people in the Making a Difference project also provide a strong reminder of how the physical environment can impact on a young person’s wellbeing. When their school and local community facilities were run down and not well maintained, young people took that as a reflection on the level of respect and esteem in which the community held them. Where learning environments were of poor quality, young people were less likely to have a strong sense of themselves as learners, or that they were valued as learners by school personnel. Poorly maintained or very limited sporting and recreational facilities in a community had a similar negative impact on young people’s sense of wellbeing.

So What Would Make a Difference to Young People?
While deepening our understanding of the experiences of young people has been an important outcome of this research, even more important is what young people think will make a difference to their lives. Young people involved in Making a difference told us that:

  • Families needed more money to be better able to support their children and maintain family stability.
  • School and local community environments needed to be safer and provide better quality activities and resources for young people.
  • Interesting things at school should be free and readily available.
  • Schools should be responsive to and respectful of complex family circumstances.

For The Smith Family, the Making a Difference research affirms the importance of providing financial support to disadvantaged families, combined with a range of opportunities for young people which allow them to participate in extra curricula activities as well as mentoring and other initiatives that connect them with a wide range of networks and supports. It also confirms the need for stronger school-community partnerships where schools in disadvantaged areas work in partnership with community organisations that can help bring in a whole range of opportunities and resources, including through businesses and volunteers, to support young people’s educational outcomes and overall wellbeing.

** The Smith Family is a national, independent children's charity helping disadvantaged Australians to get the most out of their education, so they can create better futures for themselves. It was a partner in the Making a Difference research. The full Making a Difference report is available here.


You can find out about sponsoring an Australian child, donating to The Smith Family and Volunteering here.

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