Children and Poverty: Why Their Experience of Their Lives Matter for Policy

By McDonald, Catherine | Australian Journal of Social Issues, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Children and Poverty: Why Their Experience of Their Lives Matter for Policy


McDonald, Catherine, Australian Journal of Social Issues


Introduction

The existence and persistence of poverty is, arguably, one of the most important issues to confront contemporary policy. Children's poverty in particular has an enduring capacity to disturb us, and has long been a central concern for policy researchers and policy makers nationally and internationally. The enormous corpus of extant research about children's poverty and the range of programmatic interventions undertaken by successive governments in this country, in other countries, and internationally at for example, the level of the United Nations and other transnational institutional bodies and forums, is extraordinary. Nevertheless, children remain in poverty. Clearly there are many complex and intersecting reasons for this, not least of which is the maintenance and intensification of market capitalism with its attendant inequalities, coupled with policy regimes internationally, nationally and sub-nationally which prioritise individualism and economic growth over collectivism and redistribution. Despite, or should we say in spite of capitalist triumphalism, the moral, political, social and economic imperatives for developing workable and effective responses to children's poverty remain intact. And they demand our urgent attention. Irrespective of the efforts of post World War Two Keynesian welfare states and their more recent (transformed) workfare-informed versions, the persistence of children's poverty in the face of sustained economic growth in the advanced post-industrial economies disfigures contemporary human society at what ever level one chooses to view it. From a macro sociological and economic point of view, such a state is not particularly surprising. Authors such Wintersberger (1994) and Sgritta (1994) argue, for example: that state-promoted distribution of resources between generations is distorted in that the older generation benefit far more from welfare than do children (Wintersberger, 1994: 239); and that the real politics of managing the political impact of the baby boomers exacerbates these tendencies (Sgritta, 1994: 352). These comments reflect a growing awareness that 'childhood is a variable'--specifically, a dependent variable--with consistent and persistent outcomes related to it (Qvortrup, 2000: 79).

This paper argues that we, in Australian policy research and policy development, should adopt an approach to understanding children's poverty that has fairly recently been developed by policy researchers in the United Kingdom. Drawing on, among other things, the new sociology of childhood, this approach (unlike most other policy responses to social problems) begins not with the honed and sophisticated expertise of highly educated and well read adult researchers and policy makers, but with the seemingly naive knowledge of children. It is an approach which suggests that children's perceptions and experiences of poverty are (or should be) key knowledge for policy, accepted as having an epistemological significance at least equal to the most robust quantitative data generated via complex positivist research methods. It is a position which proposes that, in Fraser's words (2004: 16), 'children are expert in their own lives'. While taking a starting point from this mostly British work, this paper goes one step further than our international policy research colleagues by attempting to do what they, for the most part, partially undertake. That is, the paper outlines in theoretical terms why children's voices matter. Invoking the new sociology of childhood and complementing that with sociology of identity, the paper begins to sketch a conceptual framework for understanding why policy scholars and policy makers should carefully attend to the voices of their subjects--in this case, those of children. Put simply, failure to attend to children's experiences, perceptions and responses to poverty could, in policy terms, lead to policy responses which miss the mark. Because this is work that is as yet largely undone in Australian policy research, the paper outlines some of the methodological implications for work informed by this approach. …

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