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Cechanski, Janet --- "Poverty in Australia: A Focus on Indigenous Poverty From an International Human Rights Perspective" [2002] HRightsDef 25; (2002) 11(3) Human Rights Defender 9


Janet Cechanski

October 17 marked the official United Nations Anti-Poverty Day. The event provides an opportunity to consider issues of poverty in Australian society.

Janet Cechanski is a Fourth year Commerce-Law student at UNSW and a student intern at the Australian human rights centre.

The media exposes us to scenes of extreme poverty in developing countries daily: images of starvation, disease and despair stare out at us from our television sets. Would it be far-fetched to say that such poverty exists in Australia today? Though poverty in Australia is clearly distinguishable from that experienced in developing countries, it is nonetheless a contemporary social issue that affects many Australians, particularly the country’s indigenous population.

The meaning of “poverty” in an affluent society

Poverty can be measured in several different ways. One common measure in Australia is the Henderson Poverty Line, which indicates income poverty. It estimates the amount of money that families of different sizes require to cover basic costs of living; it thus constitutes an austere living standard. Poverty in Australia is generally relative poverty. People are considered to be poor if their living standards fall below an overall community standard. Only a few years ago, 1.6 million people (11%) were estimated to live in a household with an income falling below the poverty line. While family income in relation to the poverty line can give an indication of living standards, other factors should also be considered such as home ownership and access to free or low-cost services such as health, education and transport.

It has been argued that in richer countries, poverty is as much about being able to participate in the life of the community as it is about having a roof over your head and enough money to feed the family. In our society, poverty can also be characterised by exclusion or marginalisation from the rest of society and is related to inequality. Limits on choice and opportunity constrain development, educational attainment and ultimately employment options.

The highest rates of poverty can be found amongst unemployed people, sole parent families, people with disabilities and, most notably, indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians are affected by poor educational outcomes, very high unemployment, and geographical isolation, which lead to effective social marginalisation. Sociology Professor Peter Travers would call this an “enforced lack of socially perceived necessities”. If there is a means of measuring socially perceived necessities in the wider Australian community, then it is evident that indigenous communities, for reasons which will be explained below, are lacking the kind of choices and opportunities that are available to the community at large.

Why is poverty most endemic amongst indigenous Australians?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have an enduring and intimate relationship with the land and sea, and the fact of dispossession and dispersal with the arrival of the English settlers has meant that many indigenous communities have been removed from the economic life of the nation, other than receiving welfare support that the government provides.

Up until the 1960s many indigenous Australians were excluded from mainstream services that other Australians received, which led to socio-economic disparities in areas such as employment, health, education and housing. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner in 2001 argued that even today indigenous people are unable to benefit equally from mainstream services because they are insufficiently accessible or adapted to the particular cultural needs of indigenous people. In addition, specialist services should be seen as additional to, and not replacing these mainstream services, since they are aimed at redressing the particular disadvantage and discrimination that indigenous people have endured through generations. Without them, indigenous people cannot participate in Australian society on an equal footing.

Another reason behind indigenous poverty is the rapid movement from exclusion, as explained above, to inclusion in a welfare system which promotes dependency and creates a “poverty trap” from which it is difficult to escape. The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey (NATSIS) found in 1994 that government payments were the main source of income for 55% of all indigenous persons. This extremely high welfare reliance can be contrasted to a rate of only 13% for non-indigenous Australians in comparable statistical surveys. The inter-related problems of poor educational outcomes, low rates of labour participation, low income and welfare dependence has prevented many indigenous individuals and families from accumulating capital, or making investments which in turn leads to inter-generational poverty.

Indigenous Poverty Today

With unemployment rates at 23% (3 times higher than the general population), levels of infant mortality at least 3 or 4 times higher than the general population and a life expectancy of 20 years less than other Australians, it is evident that there are fundamental disadvantages experienced by indigenous Australians in terms of life opportunities and wellbeing. Consistently poor health outcomes, as well as disproportionately frequent interactions with the justice system are common experiences for even relatively advantaged indigenous households.

In comparison to indigenous people in Canada and the USA, the socio-economic gap between indigenous Australians and the general population is very wide and current policies are not closing that gap. This raises a concern that Australia is not taking its human rights obligations seriously enough, and not putting enough effort into building Indigenous capacity to overcome these deeply entrenched welfare problems. Without providing culturally appropriate and flexible measures to improve housing, health, education, and employment, indigenous people will not be able to participate in, and contribute equitably to the life of the community.

Elaine McKeon, an Aboriginal woman who grew up in poverty, explains that the poverty trap began many generations ago when her people were put in missions, and children were taken away from their families and homelands under the official government policy of “assimilation”. Not only did this destroy the social fabric of her people, but also people lost their self-esteem and their dignity for generations. She emphasises that there is no dignity in welfare. Elaine is now taking action in her local community by establishing development and training programs so that they can gain transferable skills to make the most of opportunities and participate actively in society.

There are thousands of stories like Elaine’s; stories of hardship, marginalisation, despair and years of living in conditions of insufficient food, poor hygiene and not enough money to care for the extended families which are common in Aboriginal households. Unfortunately most of the stories do not share Elaine’s positive outlook on breaking away from the cycle of poverty; rather they end with children leaving school, substance abuse, domestic violence, incarceration and family breakdowns.

Looking towards the future...

The failure to address welfare dependency and major community problems such as those discussed above adequately, contributes directly to deterioration in the wellbeing of individuals, their families and the community at large. Measures must be taken to improve support services and prevention programs in order to address the problems of substance abuse, such as petrol sniffing, and domestic violence. Without providing programs aimed at redressing the underlying problems that in turn affect educational and employment outcomes, the cycle of poverty cannot be broken.

There are ways of dealing with these problems. Program’s such as South Australia’s Riverland Indigenous Mainstream Employment Program are positive moves to alleviate unemployment and break the cycle of poverty. The project aims to assist indigenous people in finding permanent, private sector work in South Australia's southeast. The community is also looking at different projects to keep young indigenous students at school for longer, and to provide mentors in the region to provide one-on-one support for young people and their families to help them stay at school, or to help them get employment.

Several communities such as the Mutitjulu Community in Central Australia have entered into Participation and Partnership Agreements whereby practical measures are taken to enter into partnerships with government and private sector stakeholders to address the above issues. Aboriginal groups have expressed the desire that government not only co-ordinate flexible, long-term funding arrangements, but that they devolve genuine decision-making responsibilities to the community level, and provide culturally appropriate support services and training programs to build such decision-making capacity at the local level.

The statistics demonstrate, however, that despite these progressive steps in some regions, global measures taken by government have not sufficiently improved the situation of indigenous Australians. This amounts to a failure by the Australian government to fulfil its international human rights obligations under Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR – ratified by Australia in 1975) to “take steps to achieve progressively the full realisations of the rights recognised by the covenant”. Until the Australian government makes the attainment of equal standards of living by indigenous Australians a “national priority”, and commits itself to a long-term framework within which short-term goals (which have been negotiated with key indigenous bodies) can be achieved, Australia will not be fulfilling its obligations either to its own citizens or under international law. We all have a right to participate actively in our society, and if certain groups have been historically denied the opportunity to do so, then they should be given all the support necessary to reach their culturally defined standards of wellbeing.

References and further reading

Altman J, 2000. The Economic Status of Indigenous Australians. CAEPR Working Paper No 193/2000,The Australian National University.

Hunter B, 1999. Three Nations, not one: Indigenous and other Australian Poverty. CAEPR Working Paper no 1/1999. The Australian National University.

Poverty: Facts, figures and suggestions for the future.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, 2001. The Social Justice Report. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

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