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Poverty means a lack of experiences for young Australians

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When research is conducted into poverty it most often centres on the incomes and situations of adults, children are a subset. But a new study turns that around, concentrating on the children’s experience of poverty and making for a better picture of what it feels like to be poor.

And the study found that, for children, poverty means missing out on a lot of things that make life better like fresh fruits and vegetables every day, internet access at home, school excursions, family holidays and some money of their own.

Researchers from UNSW Sydney say the study sheds important new light on the nature of child poverty, including its impact on well-being and attitudes to schooling.

The Material Deprivation and Social Exclusion Among Young Australians: A Child-Focused Approach report was produced by a collaboration between the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) at UNSW, the NSW Office of the Advocate for Children and Young People, The Smith Family and the New South Wales Department of Education.

Professor Peter Saunders, the study’s lead researcher from SPRC, said while the approach has been used successfully with adults both in Australia and internationally, the report marks the first time it has been used to measure child poverty in Australia.

“This study represents the first attempt to measure deprivation and exclusion through the eyes of young Australians who are typically treated as passive and invisible in poverty research,” said Saunders. “It is normally assumed they make no contributions to household income or spending, and that their views mirror those of their parents or carers. This report is grounded in and builds on children’s own views and experiences, giving a multidimensional perspective on poverty that has not previously been available.”

The study identified 18 essential items grouped into two broad categories: one that captures material deprivation (lack of ‘things’ like a computer or mobile device); and social exclusion (lack of doing ‘activities’ like a meal out with family or an annual holiday away). The findings reflect responses to a survey completed by almost 2,700 NSW government high school students (GHS) in Years 7 to 10 and about 340 financially disadvantaged students in The Smith Family’s Learning for Life program (LFL).

Key findings from the research include:

  • There was strong consensus among young people who participated in the research about which items are essential: having three meals a day (96.1% GHS; 96.4% LFL); fruit or vegetables at least once per day (96% GHS; 94.6% LFL); clothes needed for school (94.7% GHS; 96.7% LFL); access to public transportation (92.1% GHS; 93.4% LFL).
  • Significant proportions of both groups experience severe deprivation, that is, they are deprived of at least three essential items. About one in five (18.7%) of the government high schools sample and two in five (40.4%) of The Smith Family Learning for Lifesample experience severe deprivation.
  • Those experiencing higher levels of deprivation (identified using a new Child Deprivation Index derived by the researchers) were shown to have lower levels of well-being in many dimensions, such as overall life satisfaction, positivity about the future and connectedness to family, friends and community. Those experiencing higher levels of deprivation were also generally less satisfied with their schooling, less likely to be doing well at school and to regard getting good school marks as important.
  • While a majority of both groups feel safe at school, significant proportions indicate that they don’t enjoy school, nor do they feel part of their school community. This is important given the relationship between young people’s sense of belonging at school and their likely longer-term engagement in education.

“We must be able to identify where poverty and other forms of disadvantage exist, to measure and better understand it, and through that, to more effectively address it,” said Saunders. “The child-focussed approach provides a credible framework for achieving this by building on perceptions, attitudes, experiences and aspirations of young people themselves. It can contribute to helping shape a better Australia.”


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