Joanne Knight

January 19, 2009

The Road to Child Neglect

Filed under: economic crisis — joanneknight @ 9:44 pm
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When I read George Orwell’s extraordinary essay on poverty The Road to Wigan Pier in 1982, the world it displayed seemed a sad remnant of the 19th century. However after 25 years of economic liberalisation as a global movement the infamous scenes of human degradation are reappearing. Shocking cases of child neglect demonstrate that the social fabric has become so threadbare under the strain of the subprime crisis that we can no longer hide the squalor in which some live.

Orwell’s essay recognises the structural nature of the degradation he describes. Our answer to neglect is not to ask why did this happen but to criminalize and gaol individuals. The woman arrested for neglect in Adelaide recently was living in a house with her sister and their numerous children. Having worked in the community housing sector, I have found her story is a common one. So many are evicted because they are unable to pay the rent due to the ridiculously low level of Centrelink benefit. Emergency housing is often unable to help due to the parlous state of their service delivery owing to chronic underfunding. They may have encouraged her to move to Adelaide to live with her sister. Unable to cope, with inadequate income, little social support, the family descends into the sort of poverty and deprivation not seen since the 19th century. She ends up being arrested for being unable to care for her children in a system which no longer cares for the weak.

These cases are the tip of the iceberg. Maree Faulkner from the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect says, ‘There are enormous numbers of families that are just not coping and providing and caring for their children.’ With almost 310,000 notifications each year and 58,000 substantiated cases of abuse or neglect, Brian Babington from Families Australia says child protection workers are overwhelmed.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s ‘Child Protection Australia 2005-06’ reveals some serious trends. Over the last five years, the number of child protection notifications in Australia has almost doubled from 137,938 in 2001–02 to 266,745 in 2005–06. Between 30 June 2005 and 30 June 2006, the number of children in out-of-home care in Australia rose 7%. South Australian Families and Communities Minister Jay Weatherill is calling this a crisis which is worsening. With the rising costs of food, petrol and rent are we really surprised by growing figures of child neglect?

The institution of economic liberalization and its associated welfare reforms has played an important role in creating and criminalizing an underclass in Australia. Dr John Falzon, Chief Executive Officer of the St Vincent de Paul Society, draws a connection between the 25% increase in numbers in custody over last decade and the welfare reforms of the Howard years.

Economic liberalization has created a welfare system based on narrow notions of individualism and self-reliance. In the early 2000s Australia’s welfare system became centred around the concepts of ‘welfare dependency’ and ‘mutual obligation’. Dependence on welfare is constructed as an addiction like dependence on drugs or alcohol. Supporters of economic deregulation construct welfare recipients as fundamentally different from the rest of the community. The policy of mutual obligation relies on the 19th century distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. The deserving poor — those who have become briefly dependent on poverty relief through no fault of their own, and who with some assistance, could return to independence — are to be cared for. However, the undeserving poor whose poverty is the result of laziness or moral failure are to be disciplined and punished. Mutual obligation has been associated with a punitive approach to the unemployed, applied in withholding social security benefits and heavy fines. Income security is considered a privilege rather than a right.

Supporters of economic liberalisation are hostile to state-guaranteed income security and have had a consistent preoccupation with returning the provision of welfare to families, private charities and churches, some of which emphasise the moral rather than the structural causes of poverty. Consequently, the Howard government placed charities at the centre of a number of government projects including the Job Network. These measures demonstrate opposition to reducing poverty or promoting greater equity. Social expenditure has been channeled into the Family Tax Benefits system, the Maternity Payment, and the Childcare Benefit: much of which ends up in the pockets of middle and upper income earners.

Not only is the individual demonisation of welfare recipients having a detrimental impact on child welfare, it is well recognised that factors associated with poverty and social inequality, such as a sense of powerlessness, lack of money and other resources, parental stress caused by unemployment and financial problems, in themselves, increase the likelihood of child abuse and neglect. Parents under stress can transfer their feelings of frustration onto their children. The stress can also affect their judgment and decision making as a parent. Political and economic decisions which increase poverty and worsen its effects, particularly in times of economic difficulty, have a significant impact on child welfare.

The presence of protective factors may reduce the risk of abuse and neglect. One of the best recognised strategies is to provide community support for children in socially isolated families and to weave a protective social fabric around them. Such measures include income support and supplement, access to information, advice and support from a wide range of health, education and community services, child care and respite care, and accessible public transport. Repressive welfare measures undermine social programs by isolating and shaming people and driving them to despair. People are extremely reluctant to beg from the charities. Instead, they will hock their furnishings, their personal possession and turn to loan sharks and payday lenders: entre the subprime crisis.

Repressive welfare measures also compound the impact of the subprime crisis. The Consumer Price Index hit 4.2 per cent for the year to March, but wages rose only an average 3.2 per cent in a comparable period. ACOSS estimates that two million people live in poverty today – one in ten Australians – (based on a poverty line of 50% of average disposable income, as used in UK &Europe). NATSEM research about the poorest 20% of families in Australia indicates most of these families are jobless and rely on social security payments as their main source of income.

Fuel price rises come amid estimates that almost 25 per cent of homebuyers are under mortgage stress, contributing more than 30 per cent of their income to repayments. Last year, the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology reported that there are 1,186,000 or 15% of Australians in housing stress, defined by the bottom 40% of income earners paying more than 30% of their income in housing. Of these, 52% are renters and most of these are on Centrelink payments. To cope people are forced to sell or pawn possessions, forgo adequate dental or health care and have sometimes gone without meals. 120,000 homeless people in Australia. In 2006, the UN declared Australia in a state of housing crisis.

People teetering on the brink are now plunging over into degradation and squalor. Having overcommitted ourselves on mortgages and credit, the impact of rising interest rates is being felt, even among the aspirationals. Families in new development areas such as Kellyville Ridge, Rouse Hill and Bella Vista in NSW are increasingly accessing emergency community resources such as food packages, clothing and cash hand-outs. Jennifer Tisdell, executive officer of The Hills Community Aid and Information Service, said 16 per cent of her clients since the beginning of 2008 had come from such new estates. The NSW government has been required to provide emergency funding to community services which is used to provide vouchers for food, transport, medical prescriptions and assistance with rent/accommodation, and part-payment of utility bills. With the sudden spike in the cost of living there is a substantial shortfall for families.

The severe erosion of community services, health care and education in Australia under the mantra of fiscal responsibility and economic liberalization is having a devastating impact on families. Without policies to redistribute wealth, increased economic growth has a very limited capacity to alleviate poverty and social problems. The market will not help a family who cannot afford to pay for child care and even food for their children. In the language of the market, the poor are silenced. We can blame the parents and boggle at the carelessness and irresponsibility of ‘some people’ but we are all to blame for this situation. We elected the leaders who refuse to maintain adequate funding to our communities. It is time to make a real investment in our communities again and it is well beyond time to increase welfare payments, dump Centrelink breaching policies and improve services.

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