The segmentation of citizens’ lives by policy area is one of the biggest problems when it comes to addressing disadvantage, argues Patricia Faulkner, former secretary of the Victorian Department of Human Services.
“I think one of the biggest things that’s wrong with policy is that we divide the life of people up into segments. We’ll help them with their housing, we might help them with their education, we might help with their alcohol abuse, we might help them with something else,” the-now Jesuit Social Services chair said at the launch of a report on inequality by the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia.
She recalled attending a casework meeting for a woman experiencing family violence a couple of years ago while deputy commissioner of Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence.
“She went to hospital and had a baby, just before the commission, and she was notified to the Department of Human Services because her partner was beating her and she was a drug addict.
“And I went to a meeting with 13 people who were helping her. They were all looking after a different piece of her life. She had a drug counsellor, she had a homelessness worker,” Faulkner explained.
Yet despite the large number of case workers involved, not much was available in terms of services.
“The homelessness worker, when she was discharged from hospital, the best response that we could get was one or two nights in a motel.”
Such stories contrast with the data governments often feel more comfortable discussing, such as that Australia has enjoyed 26 years of unbroken economic growth and income inequality has not declined in the past decade.
“Some people have to start peeling back and having a look at what true disadvantage is,” she continued.
“Disadvantage isn’t being between jobs or your mortgage has gone up. True disadvantage is you can be discharged from hospital with a five pound baby to a motel for two nights, without anybody knowing what’s going to happen to you next.
“Part of the problem is that we’re prepared to look at statistics that show what a good story we can tell. Australia can tell the story that it has one of the most targeted welfare systems in the world, so that the people who need help get it.
“But you can also say that we have one of the meanest welfare systems in the world because the people who need help are not getting the holistic assistance they need.”
Asking the wrong questions
Policy makers are often concerned with the wrong questions, Faulkner thinks.
“We should be talking about: what gives people dignity? What makes people feel safe? And are we doing the right things to make people have the dignity that they require? Have they got the dignity of work? Do we hound people who don’t have work? Do we lock up kids who don’t do well?”
The headline data does not give the full picture about disadvantage in Australia, agreed CEDA CEO Melinda Cilento.
“Running throughout the chapters of our report is this theme that when you start breaking it down and looking at particular cohorts, you often get a very different story.
“That was one of the high level conclusions that flows from this report, is that there are pockets of people who are not connected to the broader prosperity the community is experiencing.”
For example, 13% of Australians are still living in poverty, she said, and there are “significant gaps in achievement between students with lower or higher educated parents — up to 4½ years for writing in the case of NAPLAN results for year 9.”
Why is inequality on the agenda?
Cilento also noted that it was strange that inequality has become a bigger political issue recently in Australia, despite the data showing income distribution had remained about the same over the past decade. There appear to be a few reasons for this.
“It is important I think that over the period we are looking at, that is since 2007-08, income growth has stalled — average weekly household incomes grew by just $27 to $1009 per week over this period,” she explained.
“Stagnant wages growth is something highlighted in our report as a significant factor in people feeling as if inequality is on the rise.
“Another is the increasing income of the top one per cent of income earners. There is, for example, clear evidence that the income share of the top one per cent of income earners is higher than it has been for some decades.”
It doesn’t help when “the different ways to assess and present information on inequality, and the importance of the timeframes considered, adds to complexity and confusion,” she said.
This is why CEDA thinks the Productivity Commission should be asked to report regularly on the state of inequality in Australia — “to add an authoritative voice to the debate”.