Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

A Valuable Contribution to Research and Policy: Reviewing Four Decades of Australian Poverty Research

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

A Valuable Contribution to Research and Policy: Reviewing Four Decades of Australian Poverty Research

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

At first glance, poverty does not feature prominently among the many articles that have appeared in The Australian Journal of Social Issues (AJSI) since it first appeared in 1961. Although many of Australia's leading poverty researchers--Bryson, Cass, Harper, Henderson, Richardson and Shaver--have contributed to the Journal, few have specifically addressed poverty. There are also many eminent names missing from a list that one might have expected to include Bradbury, Downing, Gregory, Johnson, Harding, Martin, Manning and McClelland. However, a more careful reading shows that there has, in fact been a large number of papers that have addressed different aspects of poverty, and this article reviews how this material has contributed to the literature in this important but controversial area of research and policy.

In undertaking such a task, difficult choices have to be made over what to include and the emphasis given to specific issues. What follows thus represents what emerges when articles written in some instances over 40 years ago are looked at through a distinctly modern lens, one that has been shaped by the author's own experience in contributing to a rapidly changing field of inquiry. An important goal is to explore whether, and how this body of literature has shaped overall developments in the field.

The paper is organised as follows: Section 2 provides a brief review of the changing context of poverty research over a period when its fortunes have fluctuated wildly. Section 3 reviews a series of papers that use the Henderson poverty framework to present and analyse the overall profile of Australian poverty, Section 4 considers its application and extension in specific areas, and Section 5 explores the relationship between poverty research and the means-testing of social benefits. Section 6 briefly considers recent papers that have addressed the relationship between poverty and social exclusion, while the main conclusions are summarised in Section 7.

2. The Changing Research Context

When the original editors of AJSI were drafting its introductory Editorial in the Spring of 1961, radical changes were underway in poverty research in the English-speaking countries that have dominated the field until relatively recently. In Britain, 1961 saw the commencement of the milestone study by Brian Abel-Smith and Peter Townsend which produced the highly influential book The Poor and the Poorest that challenged what the authors described as the two assumptions that had governed much of post-war economic thinking in Britain: that poverty had been 'abolished', and that inequality in living standards had declined (Abel-Smith and Townsend 1965: 9). They recognised the need for a fresh approach that documented the scale of these problems using official survey data and, having applied it, found that the existing assumptions were not borne out by the British evidence.

In the United States, Michael Harrington's book The Other America, released in 1962, presented a similar challenge to American orthodoxy, and Molly Orshansky and colleagues were developing the family budgets that would evolve into the Economy Food Plan that would form the basis of the official US poverty line. That line, largely unchanged--or 'stuck in a time warp', to use Glennerster's (2002) more evocative expression--is still used to track movements in the official US poverty rate and is the basis for countless research studies of how and why poverty has changed (Haveman 2000; Burtless and Smeeding 2001).

Australian poverty research was also about to take a quantum leap in terms of its sophistication and impact. In 1962 Ronald Henderson migrated to Australia to become the Director of the Institute of Applied Economic Research and the famous Melbourne poverty survey began under his leadership and inspiration in 1964 (Niewenhuysen 1998)--although the full results were not published for another six years (Henderson, Harcourt and Harper 1970). …

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