This week’s column is on the subject of the book “Children of the lucky country” the state of children. It speaks for itself I guess, though of course in a column format one doesn’t have sufficient space to spell everything out.
Suffice it to say that as I read the book it seemed to me that a dimension was missing. As I read further and thought more it seemed that something like a conjuring trick was being played with the word ‘disadvantage’. What does it mean to say that the myriad problems of youth follow a ‘gradient of disadvantage’?
The fact is that a lot of the problems bunch together and appear to be the result of tolerance of anti-social and irresponsible behaviour. And the perpetuation of irresponsible and anti-social behaviour will disadvantage the communities in which it occurs. The language of disadvantage shoehorns the discussion into an old and dated groove. Yes, those who do so acknowledge that it’s not all material disadvantage there’s ‘social disadvantage’ as well. But that looks a bit like a trick to me it redefines the problem to look like the old problem that the welfare state was invented to address.
These problems are at least to some extent products of the welfare state. That doesn’t lead me to want to get rid of the welfare state. But it does lead me to want to talk about ‘social breakdown’ rather than ‘social disadvantage’. The former term suggests the solution might be at least in part encouraging but also demanding higher standards of behaviour in such communities. The latter term suggests victims who just need more help.
On page 215 the authors say this.
[P]roblems such as low birth weight, ear infections in Aboriginal children, obesity and exposure to violence in their home have their root causes in poverty and inequality, poor and overcrowded housing, poor education, unemployment, and inadequate community resources to support parents with mental health problems or addictions and other major stresses.
Now, as I suggest in the column, I have no problem with governments spending more dealing with these issues. But it seems to me that it would be better to think of these issues as issues of self-perpetuating ‘social breakdown’ with inequality being the unhappy consequence rather than as rooted in material inequality as the authors suggest. The fact is that some inequality (for instance amongst many migrant communities) sorts itself out within a generation and other inequality doesn’t. I don’t think more money will do much at all if it isn’t coupled with insistence on individual and community responsibility, and strenuous attempts to do everything possible to resist anti-social behaviour.
Anyway, here’s the column.
Not so lucky
Christmas celebrates a child’s birth. It’s still mainly a children’s affair. But might the effort we put into helping our kids celebrate Christmas help us forget how well we’re protecting their interests?
Of course some things have improved. We’re more aware of safety. Swimming pools are fenced. Child abuse isn’t swept under the carpet nearly so much. And scientific advance has eliminated most death and disability from lots of childhood diseases like polio.
But there’s plenty to worry about. On being made Australian of the year in 2003 Fiona Stanley did all she could to tell us. Now she’s co-authored a book The Children of the Lucky Country with two other distinguished Australian women, economics professor Sue Richardson of Adelaide’s National Institute for Labour Studies, and Margot Prior, professor of psychology at Melbourne University.
The book acknowledges our progress but shows how, despite strong economic growth, we’re failing our children. I don’t think they’re arguing against the growth we’d be even worse without it. But it’s a reminder, if one were needed, that growth is not enough.
Childhood obesity, diabetes, asthma, autism and Downs syndrome have all increased. And kids’ psychological health is nothing to write home about.
Suicide rates for males aged 15 to 24 rose fourfold between the 1960s and the late 1990s (though with greater policy and community vigilance, they’re at last falling sharply). Psychological professionals are reporting increases in ‘difficult-to-treat’ psychological problems, like delinquency, aggressive behaviour, depression and drug abuse.
Girls are catching up to boys in aggressive behaviour and are already ahead of them in binge drinking. Of children 12-15 years old, 16 percent of boys binge drink whilst the figure for girls is 20 percent (up from 11 and 14 percent respectively in 1984). 38 percent of them obtain their grog from their parents!
That’s plenty of food (or drink!) for thought. The cause of some of the problems like asthma remain a mystery. Others like increases in Downs syndrome children arise from women waiting longer to have babies. But many of the most worrying maladies follow what the authors call a ‘gradient of disadvantage’ the lower a community’s socio-economic status, the more prevalent its problems.
The gradient of disadvantage is strongest for many of the worst problems. Take ‘fetal alcohol syndrome’ produced by excessive drinking, smoking and poor nutrition during pregnancy. It’s one hundred times more prevalent amongst aborigines than other Australians, something the authors attribute to social circumstances rather than racial tolerances to alcohol.
The authors make many worthwhile recommendations, with a strong bias toward left-leaning communitarian ones. They call for much better public funding for child-care and pre-school and remedial interventions surely the best way we know of getting the safety net under children whose parents can’t or won’t meet their obligations.
But the problems we’re facing are sufficiently serious and intractable that I’d have appreciated a more fearlessly eclectic attack on our problems one that wasn’t confined so exclusively to one side of the ideological spectrum.
For instance, contrary to popular opinion, we more than doubled real school funding per pupil from 1975 to 1998 and lowered class sizes from 25 to 17 in primary schools, and from 16 to 13 in secondary schools. Yet the Australian Council of Educational Research reports that the literacy and numeracy standards of 14 year-olds in year 9 have fallen.
What we’ve gained in quantity we’ve lost in quality (of teaching and perhaps parenting at least where there’s social breakdown). To tackle these problems effectively we need the flexibility to target areas of greatest need and to reward good performance including with performance pay for teachers.
There are various institutional and ideological obstacles to such flexibility within education bureaucracies and teacher unions. But the book doesn’t discuss this.
At a deeper level I think the constant reference to problems of ‘disadvantage’ is subtly misleading. Many of the worst problems don’t stem from material disadvantage and haven’t been improved by applying greater public resources.
You can call the problems ‘social disadvantage’ but that’s just a circular redefinition. Calling it by it’s name which is social dysfunction should help us better choose remedies on their merits.
Of course social dysfunction and material disadvantage reinforce each other. But precisely because of that I want to tackle each of them simultaneously and with ideas from both the left and right of the ideological spectrum. By all means let’s redistribute income and fund local communities to relieve disadvantage. But let’s also value achievement, self-help and initiative at the individual and local community level. And as Noel Pearson argues, we need more trenchant intolerance of anti-social behaviour, however disadvantaged its perpetrators.
This concern aside, I salute Fiona Stanley and her co-authors for their passion. And for the justness of their call for us all to do what we can to create a world where every child is nurtured with the protection, encouragement, and (I’d add) the rightful authority it craves.