Putting people back in the picture

puttingpeople

People are the whole reason for social policy and it’s time to bring them back  into the picture when designing systems and delivering support, to help make sure happiness and a good life are not just aspirations for some, but something everyone can attain, VCOSS CEO Emma King says.

We have children with mums who are escaping violent situations living in cars, in refuges, or couch surfing. I can’t see how anyone can argue they have brought this upon themselves. Yet we know that without supportive and effective early intervention, their entire life trajectory will be adversely affected.

People facing disadvantage have been described on the political stage in recent years as ‘leaners’ and ‘rorters’, and questioned as to why they don’t just ‘get a good job’ and help themselves get on their own two feet.

The question this begs in return, is why would anyone ever want to identify themselves as struggling, even if needing to ask for support, or wanting to advocate for change, when in doing so they open themselves up to being derided and demonised, including by those with significant influence, and apparently, little empathy?

The community sector organisation members of VCOSS who work at the frontline of poverty and disadvantage see stories of devastation every day. They see people from all walks of life, including increasingly, people who were previously doing OK but have had their lives turned upside down. This could be through serious illness, disability, death of loved ones, job loss,
relationship breakdown, family violence, problem gambling, or a myriad of other potential scenarios that can upset the balance of people’s lives, and undermine their ability to cope. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the ongoing good health, financial resources, family or friends needed to make genuine choices and receive real support, if and when misfortune strikes.

When faced with adversity, people are usually fighters. They fight to survive, they want to thrive. I’ve previously worked in government secondary schools. I’ve seen students overcome all forms of adversity just to make it to school because they want to do well in life, and because school gives them a sense of belonging, a safe space where they can spend time with friends and be happy. In just one example, a student’s mother had asked her to stay home from school regularly to look after her younger siblings, to enable the mum to attend job interviews. This mum was looking for work to support her family, because her partner wasn’t around, and when he was around he was violent. It was an impossible situation for a mum who had no support, and a student torn between helping her family and wanting to come to school. The student fully understood that if she didn’t make it to school often enough to do well, then she wasn’t going to have much of a chance later on, but she was absent regularly through no fault of her own.

The reality is that everyone who is doing it tough has their story, and these are the stories the  statistics never tell. Nevertheless the statistics are grim. In Victoria we now have more than 1 million people living under or just above the poverty line. The concentration of poverty in  regional Victoria is particularly pronounced. Our unemployment levels continue to rise, and our job market is undergoing disruptive and extraordinary change. The shift from manufacturing to the services sector simply hasn’t provided an equal number of full-time jobs for people, and our labour market is now more casualised and precarious. Almost one third of people in poverty  actually have a wage – just not one regular or high enough to pay the bills. More than 22,000 people in Victoria are homeless, with almost half of these people aged under 25, and one in six a child under the age of 12. We have children with mums who are escaping violent situations living in cars, in refuges, or couch suring. I can’t see how anyone can argue they have brought this upon themselves. Yet we know that without supportive and effective early intervention, their entire life trajectory will be adversely affected.

Despite warnings of the negative effects of increasing inequality from organisations such as the World Bank, among others, in Australia inequality continues to grow. The top 10 per cent of households own 45 per cent of all wealth, including 80 per cent of all wealth in investment properties attracting significant taxation benefits. Over the last 20 years the share of income going to those at the top has increased, while the share flowing to those in the middle and bottom has declined. The increased concentration of wealth is in areas where generous tax concessions apply, such as real estate, shares and superannuation.

Some people and communities are stuck in intractable intergenerational poverty, as highlighted by the Dropping off the Edge 2015 report. Using a strong evidence base, this report showed entire communities have faced persistent poverty and disadvantage, and are robbed of  opportunities to break out of it. We owe it to our communities and ourselves to do better.

It is critical that we view ourselves, and everyone around us, as being part of a society, not just  an economy; and that we remain aware of the obligations this brings for us all. Dennis Glover’s recent book, An economy is not a society, (see story page 8), highlights the profound effects that economic decisions taken by governments can have on prosperous communities, stripping them of local job prospects and opportunities. Glover draws on the devastating effects such decisions have had on his hometown suburb of Doveton, in Melbourne’s outer south-east, where once there were three jobs for every household, but now there is only one job for every five households, with the vast majority of these jobs not going to Doveton residents. This once strong community has had opportunities stripped from it, and not by the choice of its local  people. Decisions to cease manufacturing subsidies were not made by the residents of Doveton, but nevertheless they are the ones well and truly paying both the economic and social costs. The odds are now stacked against the community.

A worker at the frontline of a  homelessness service told me that when he speaks to young people seeking support and asks them what they want for their future, they consistently tell him they want somewhere to live, to be healthy, to have friends and to have a job. They want to be happy. They want a good life. Is this any different to the aspirations of any of us? Would it be so easy to demonise someone if you first went to the trouble to speak with them, listen to them and find out that what they want is no more than the very simplest of things you would wish for yourself?

So while the statistics around poverty and disadvantage are indeed grim, it is only by  listening to people and their stories that we begin to understand their real effects. In a way the statistics become a veil that needs to be lifted, to show the faces of those living with poverty and disadvantage.

In lifting this veil, we also need to heed further warnings from overseas experiences. For example, our federal government has told us that too many people have been
supported by the Disability Support Pension (DSP). It has moved many people off the DSP to far lower paying unemployment benefits. The government would be well advised to check out the UK experience, where The Times reported “over a two-year period, 2,380 people claiming employment and support allowance died within a fortnight of being told they were deemed  able to work and so would lose the benefit”. It is no surprise the British government tried to hide these figures, which were obtained through a Freedom of Information request.

Rather than vilifying and punishing people with disability, we would do better to empathise and look to support them. A good start would be governments setting meaningful employment targets for people with disability, to raise the prospects of them being able to find employment at inclusive workplaces. And before responding to the call to judge whole swathes of people unfairly, let’s also consider something else. A significant proportion of our population is moving in and out of poverty, or facing some form of disadvantage, at any one time. The reality for  people right across society, is that at some stage in their life, it could be them.

I’ve recently met Sam. Sam held down a great job, had lots of friends and was paying off his mortgage. His mum was diagnosed with cancer and died. His sister was also diagnosed with cancer around the same time as his mum, but didn’t want to tell the family, as they were already under so much stress. She died soon after his mum. Sam’s life just fell apart. He turned to drugs, couldn’t cope with his job, lost connection with his family and became homeless.

Then there’s Angela. Angela was a middle-class stay-at-home mum, supporting her family, cooking, cleaning, picking up and dropping off her kids from school. But her husband began abusing her, and she had to leave her home very quickly with nowhere to go and no financial resources to call on. She was terrified and lived in constant fear.

Both Sam and Angela are now in better places in their lives, having had the help of community service organisations, but it’s been a long, hard road and one neither of them anticipated. Their lives have been irretrievably affected. Both describe having once thought the circumstances they’ve endured just couldn’t happen to them. But having lived through it, they also now have great ideas about how to improve the way government develops and implements policy. Like many thousands of others, they have directly experienced the services governments and others provide, or importantly, fail to provide. They have incredible knowledge, intelligence and expertise, and want to use their experience to make life better for others.

I recently caught a tram with Angela, and when we swiped our public transport myki cards she  said how much easier life would be if there was a small ‘H’ at the bottom of the card, to  discreetly let inspectors know someone was homeless when they were checking tickets. Rather  than issue a fine that someone has no capacity to pay, an inspector could politely sight the ‘H’ and move on. This could help people facing homelessness access services, appointments and community activities with dignity, and reduce the extraordinary number of fines being issued to people who can’t pay and who now increasingly end up serving jail time as a result.

Those with lived experience of using our community and social services systems should be playing a far greater role in informing how policies and practices can be improved or entirely reworked. We need to remember we’re dealing with people and keep this top of mind, while balancing it with other evidence and research to develop infrastructure and systems.

It’s time to look at new ways of developing and implementing policy, and building our  communities. We clearly don’t have all the answers or we’d be doing a lot better. We need to embrace the true nature of people when we develop policy, rather than making sweeping judgements and assuming we know all the answers. Otherwise we are just setting ourselves up to fail.

We have some strong examples of communities listening to each other and working together to  identify and bring about improvements. One of these is the town of Maryborough, west of Melbourne, and its Go Goldfields initiative. The community identified five key aims, ranging from improving literacy and numeracy, to reducing the number of children referred to child protection. The early signs of this initiative are very promising and show what can happen when a community is given the opportunity and some freedom to work together to identify aims and determine how best to achieve them.

Those with lived experience of using our community and social services systems should be playing a far greater role in informing how policies and practices can be improved or entirely reworked. We need to remember we’re dealing with people and keep this top of mind, while balancing it with other evidence and research to develop infrastructure and systems.

Often this may entail a significant shift and won’t always be simple, but it will improve the chances of policies working when rolled out in the complex reality of people’s lives.

And if we want to support people, build stronger communities and a brighter future for our country, it’s time to tackle the hard issues, to be brave in taking some chances. Rather than making decisions that prioritise economic benefits, even ones that accrue to the majority of people, we need to consider the moral and economic costs for those who don’t benefit and are subsequently left behind.

We owe this to the more than one million people behind the bleak poverty statistics.

As my nine-year-old daughter recently said to me: “Mum, life is like a lucky dip”. I think she’s got  a point. We know some are doing it much harder than others, and it is incumbent on us to move beyond the judgemental rhetoric and listen to them. We need to be prepared to embrace their reality in the way social systems and community services are designed and delivered. Why shouldn’t everyone be supported to seek happiness and a good life? To have somewhere to live, to be healthy, to have friends and to have a job. We need to change the way we do things in our social policy making, so that a good life becomes something attainable for all, rather than merely an aspiration for so many.

 

 

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