Breaking the poverty cycle with education

Nearly 640,000 Australian children live in a ‘jobless’ family. These children are, on average, up to three years behind their peers in reading and maths by the time they’re 15 years of age. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

HSC completion rates in lower socio-economic backgrounds are still much lower (58%) than for students from higher socio-economic backgrounds (77%).

Lisa O’Brien is the CEO of The Smith Family which runs programs purely directed toward supporting education from early childhood through tertiary study and says that with 1 in 10 children growing up in a house where there is no adult working, it puts enormous pressure on the financial resources in the home and the consequences are far-reaching.

“Today in Australia, 1 in 10 children are growing up in a house where there is no adult working. That puts enormous pressure on the financial resources in the home and there are far-reaching consequences of that.”

“We’re seeing young people growing up in households where there have been multiple generations of unemployment and financial disadvantage, and growing up in a home where there aren’t strong moral models around employment.”

“That’s not through any lack of desire on behalf of the parents it’s just that they haven’t been employed, so the things that are often taken for granted such as seeing someone get up in the morning and get dressed and go to work – kids don’t grow up with that kind of role model or example and so it tends to become a self-perpetuating cycle.”

“It’s partly because of the role-modelling, partly access to resources and also a sense of aspiration, that ‘I’m at school and I’m going to work hard so I can go on to university and get a job’; it’s just not the language in those households.”

“So we are seeing that these communities of long term disadvantage are growing around Australia. That puts a lot of pressure on young people who want to break out of that cycle.”

Over 20 years ago, The Smith Family changed its support model from one of welfare and charitable handouts, food parcels, etc, to one of supporting education.

“Our mission has always been to support kids and families with emergency help when in crisis, but it was recognised that we were just seeing the same families coming back through the door and we weren’t achieving sustainable change, that we weren’t making a difference in the long term to these kids and families. Research told us the key was education.”

“So we refocused all of our operations from passive assistance support to early intervention, focusing on supporting young people with their education. We start that support when they’re young and we will stay with the child all through the journey providing them support with the ultimate aim of them completing school and ideally going on to some further study, but definitely with the aim of transitioning into employment.”

“We recognised that there were others that could provide that sort of immediate emergency help and welfare support, but over time we realised by us giving additional financial support targeted to education that they were able to make a long-term change and they (the families) really valued that this money was quarantined to support their kids with education and wasn’t just getting subsumed in the needs of everyday existence.”

Anne Hampshire is the head of research for The Smith Family and she says even something most of us take for granted – internet access – can be a major problem for many Australian families.

“ABS data shows that lots of children are unable to access the internet at home. Research shows that 1 in 5 children aged between 5 and 14 had no internet access at home over a 12-month period and in some communities it was as high as 1 in 3 children.”

“Why that particularly matters, the major reason children use the internet at home is education-related activity. Yes, they might download movies and music, but the predominant reason they use it is for education, and assumptions are made that everybody has access to the internet.”

In our own region, the principal of Irrawang High School (Raymond Terrace) recently told 1233 that 25% of his students had no internet access at home and are earning about $200 per week less than the state average.

Anne says these figures reflect their own, “Around 40% of our families don’t have an email address.”

Newcastle mother, Lu*, says the support of The Smith Family’s Learning for Life program has taught her children more than the basics.

“When they were younger, they had a reading group where someone would phone them and have the kids read with them over the phone. We’ve learnt to budget and it makes a big difference knowing that the money is going to help our kids learn.”

“I’m not as smart as my children, I only went to Year 10 and then to TAFE, but I didn’t really have much of an education. My kids know that they need an education to get a job, to make a career, to get further in life, to have a good home and survive. They know it’s hard.”

“If we didn’t have this little bit of support, it would be another struggle. People say, ‘Oh, just put $10 aside’. Well, what $10!? I need $10 more! It’s a struggle.”

Lu now has a child at university, another doing his HSC and a little one yet to start school, but it was tough to hear Lu say that she’d actually told her kids not to be like her.

“I always say to them, ‘You don’t want to be uneducated like us and not be able to afford things. Look at us, we’re struggling every day, but with your education you’ll be able to do whatever you want and help others.”

Alex* is Lu’s son and this year completing his HSC. It speaks highly of Lu’s work with The Smith Family to support her children through education that Alex doesn’t consider himself to be ‘disadvantaged’.

“I think disadvantage is when someone doesn’t have access to the same resources as someone else. I don’t think I am too disadvantaged, I have a lot of positives in my life and I know there are plenty of others that don’t have the benefits that I do.”

How does Alex feel about being sponsored?

“It gives me education. There’s quite a range of social groups at school but most of my friends want to go to university. I want to study a social science degree, philosophy, theology, a few things because I like to learn and I’m fascinated these topics.”

Research by The Smith Family shows that completely Year 12 ‘increases a young person’s likelihood of continuing with further study, as well as entering the workforce.’

It also leads to higher annual earnings for individuals, greater community involvement and economic benefits for the country as a whole.

But not completing Year 12 can lead to:

Increased crime and poorer health outcomes among early school leavers
Nationally lower levels of productivity
Reduced quality of the labour force
Increased unemployment
Lower growth in income tax collections

Indeed, the Victorian Auditor-General’s Report, November 2012, said:

Education attainment is an important predictor of future employment, welfare and health prospects – and it improves [a person’s] ability to contribute socially and economically in the community.

Lisa O’Brien says that helping children obtain an education is good for all of us.

“There are some kids and families in Australia who are doing it really tough, but with the right support at the right time they can turn their lives around. That’s in everyone’s interest. If we have young people who are well-educated and focused on completing school and going on to employment, we’ll all prosper. It’s a great investment.”

(*names changed)

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