Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Closing the Gap: The Growing Divide between Poverty Research and Policy in Australia

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Closing the Gap: The Growing Divide between Poverty Research and Policy in Australia

Article excerpt

Introduction

The fiftieth anniversary of The Australian Journal of Social Issues coincides closely with another milestone in Australian social policy. Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark Melbourne Poverty study conducted by Ronald Henderson and colleagues from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, the main fieldwork for which took place between April and June 1966 (Henderson, Harcourt & Harper 1970; see also Williams 2012: 14-21). That study had a profound impact on subsequent generations of Australian poverty researchers, establishing a framework for collecting data and measuring poverty, defined as a lack of income relative to need. The framework allows the dimensions of poverty to be estimated, its proximate determinants identified, and the impact--and inadequacies--of social security and other government provisions to be assessed. Importantly, Henderson also emphasised the need--frequently forgotten in subsequent developments--for complementary studies examining in detail how families on low incomes manage to survive, and the role that services, local communities and other factors play in this process (see McCaughey, Shaver & Ferber 1977). Together, the quantitative and qualitative studies pioneered by Henderson increased public awareness of the issues, produced a better understanding of the underlying causes of impoverishment, and resulted in the establishment of the Poverty Inquiry under Henderson's leadership, which was a landmark in Australian poverty research.

These were formidable achievements. Nonetheless, a broader perspective on the impact of this work provides a fuller appreciation of its contribution to public understanding of the issue and the momentum for change that resulted--in large part because this helps explain why poverty rarely features in contemporary policy debate in Australia. Henderson and colleagues displayed consummate skill not only in conducting the research, but also in disseminating their findings in digestible chunks--using language that spoke to the public--to policy makers and to government decision-makers. It was thus not just the research itself that mattered, but also its role in initiating a dialogue between researchers and policy makers, which built the momentum for change. Although the extent of change was less than Henderson had hoped for, the shortfall had as much to do with the turbulent economic conditions in the 1970s than with any lack of political will to improve social policy (Manning 1998). In retrospect, the episode serves as a classic example of 'evidence-based policy', with cutting-edge research conducted by respected experts identifying an issue that needed addressing, tapping into public awareness of the need for change, and convincing policy makers to respond with the commitment--and resources--required to address the problem. (1)

How things have changed. Today, the word poverty has virtually disappeared from policy discourse--in large part because the research lacks credibility among decision-makers, but also because policy makers have become suspicious of evidence that can be used to hold them to account on a sensitive issue with strong 'moral imperative' overtones (Whiteford 2001). This is an example of what the OECD Secretary-General has recently described as the 'ostrich' approach to policy, which involves 'ignoring difficult issues, in the hope that no-one will talk about them and that they will eventually go away' (OECD 2008). There is a ray of hope in a recent Productivity Commission report on disadvantage in Australia--'disadvantage' constituting bureaucratic code for poverty--in which it is argued that: 'A lack of understanding about disadvantage can ... be an impediment to good public policy ... [which] ... should be built on an evidence-based understanding of the nature, depth and persistence of disadvantage' (MeLachlan et al. 2013: 3, 4; italics added). But it comes at a time when one of the most important social security payments for people of working age--Newstart Allowance--remains well below the poverty line, and where the growing chorus of national (Whiteford 2010) and international (OECD 2010) calls for an increase to restore its adequacy has fallen on deaf ears--even by the previous ALP Government, which had placed social inclusion at the centre of its social policy agenda (Saunders 2013a). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.