Welfare Dependency or Inherited Disadvantage?

19 Dec 2016
Picture: (left to right) Professor Mark Western, Professor Janeen Baxter and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (External Engagement) Professor Iain Watson 

The divide between low and high-income earners in Australia is growing and families are key components in the transmission of disadvantage.

In their recent sold-out Global Leadership Series presentation, Professor Mark Western, Director of the Institute for Social Science Research and Professor Janeen Baxter Director of The Life Course Centre, discussed what disadvantage in Australia looks like and why it isn’t always easy for individuals to change their circumstances.

During their talk, Professor Baxter explained that upbringing plays a key role in determining the outcomes of young people in countries like Australia where there is significant income inequality.

“Our research tells us that the circumstances we are born into strongly shape our destinies; people don’t start from the same place, even before birth.

“The institutions that matter for our success like family, schools, workplaces and universities too often reward performance that at least in part reflects our earlier advantages and often these same institutions don’t really compensate for the early disadvantages and setbacks,” Professor Baxter said.

Professor Baxter suggests misconceptions about disadvantage, such as the belief that individuals are solely to blame for their socio-economic situation, often stem from people only comparing themselves with others they personally know or have met.

“In sociology we explain this by using reference group theory, and that’s when we compare ourselves to others that we know. Since most of our reference groups are similar to ourselves, we mostly see ourselves therefore as typical or average, like the other people that we know.”

Professor Western said that for those born into poorer families it can be harder to break the cycle of disadvantage.

“Limited social mobility suggests that despite an individual’s potential, if they come from a poor family they are going to find it increasingly difficult to get ahead in life.

“Our research shows that the circumstances, efforts, and the decisions of the people who come before you such as your parents and even your grandparents are major influencers on who you are.”

A person’s fortune before birth often follows them throughout life said Professor Western.

“Even before birth, some people are lucky and others are not and depending on how we organise ourselves in societies like Australia. The advantages of good luck can compound over a person’s life, while the disadvantages of bad luck can also compound, to make people increasingly vulnerable and cause them to fall behind.”

Developing and testing real solutions to tackle social disadvantage is one of the key objectives of the Institute for Social Science Research and The Life Course Centre.

Professor Baxter says solutions to address disadvantage must be targeted towards helping people during their early stages of development, when they are most at risk of being left behind.

“Supporting parents and students as part of a holistic approach to addressing disadvantage is really about tackling one of the root causes of intergenerational disadvantage and that’s the lack of support for disadvantaged families and children early in the life course. This undermines their ability to effectively participate in school and further education and employment after school.”

Rising welfare expenditure in Australia is a concern, not because of the monetary cost, but because it indicates that more people are being forced to live in poverty said Professor Baxter.

“We shouldn’t care about rising welfare expenditure because of concerns about bludgers or slackers, we should care about it because it highlights that people are doing it tough. Rising welfare suggests that people don’t have access to basic necessities we take for granted, they don’t have access to medical treatment needed and they don’t have the ability to buy medication prescribed by a doctor.

“In Australia today we have almost 3 million children living below the poverty line and their life chances start to look decidedly unfair when you think about the disadvantaged families in which they grow up.”

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