Opinion piece in The West Australian - Safeguarding the health and welfare of kids a priority
by Colin Pettit
One in 10 WA children and young people who participated in my recent Speaking Out Survey said that only sometimes is there enough food for them at home.
Readers may recall a recent road safety campaign highlighting the difference between accepting a statistic and the reality of that number when applied to our own loved ones. That campaign was memorable for one man’s emotional response when asked what an acceptable road death toll would be, and when confronted with his family being included in that number, revised his response immediately to zero.
This is a concept I have often used when discussing childhood poverty. How many West Australian children living in poverty do we think is acceptable? Most of us would answer that the number should be zero, that no child should be saying that there is often not enough food for them.
The reality is that up to 17 per cent of WA’s 598,000 children and young people are living below the poverty line.
Eradicating poverty has long challenged societies globally. It is over 30 years since the then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke made his memorable statement that no Australian child would live in poverty by 1990.
Over the last few years in my role as Commissioner for Children and Young People I have regularly heard first-hand accounts from children affected by poverty. These range from a lack of money for basic needs, experiencing homelessness and seeing their family under stress.
Poverty has a profound impact on the life of a child that extends well beyond their childhood. There are strong links between family poverty and a range of concerning outcomes for children, including lower levels of school achievement and longer-term physical and mental health issues. Poverty rates in WA are tied to the economic booms and downturns in the economy, in particular the shifts in median incomes and also changes in the cost of living, including rental costs.
As we continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to focus on our most vulnerable. For children experiencing poverty, the required measures to reduce the spread of the virus, such as online learning and mobility restrictions, also have the potential to place already vulnerable children at greater risk of harm. Unstable living arrangements, family conflict, poor health and job losses only exacerbate these issues further.
Child poverty is a critical issue and yet there is no agreed national definition and it is not measured on a regular basis by any government department.
New Zealand has introduced the Child Poverty Reduction Act 2018 which requires the government of the day to set long-term (10-year) and intermediate (three-year) targets on child poverty measures which are to be reported on annually.
I believe there is merit in this decision and have proposed to my Children’s Commissioner and Guardian counterparts in other states that we need a national approach to measuring and ultimately reducing childhood poverty.
I continue to advocate for a whole-of-government Child Wellbeing Strategy for WA, with a priority on targeted, early intervention for vulnerable WA children, young people and their families.
I have also recommended to government that we establish Child Impact Assessments when passing legislation or developing policy, programs and services.
This will provide a greater understanding of how government policies, including welfare policies, impact children and young people.
There has been significant investments and good intentions over many years from both government and non-government sectors to address childhood vulnerability.
A key priority of the WA Government is to improve the health and wellbeing of WA’s children in the early years and this is a goal we should all support. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is to reduce the rate of children living with financial disadvantage and social exclusion.
Regular monitoring and reporting on a measure of child poverty is an essential component of meeting this.
As we move through the COVID-19 recovery phase, it is more important than ever to ensure that vulnerable children do not fall further through the cracks.
Published in The West Australian on 27 August 2020 on page 52.