Beyond Bare Necessities


Discussion about poverty, disadvantage, what’s fair and not fair as well as how society responds or chooses not to respond to these issues is never far from public debate.

Thankfully, our understanding of poverty is beginning to broaden and is slowly being reconstructed as a concept of social inclusion or exclusion, rather than merely an economic state. With this shift, the real impact of poverty on people’s lives is gaining momentum in poverty discourse.

I work at child and family welfare agency UnitingCare Burnside, which assists over 5000 disadvantaged children, young people and families across NSW every year. During our recent agency-wide ‘Have Your Say’ Day, we asked the people we assist for feedback about our services. Specifically, we asked what they would change about our services and why. A number of themes emerged from the 700 or so responses received. Featuring prominently amongst them was the desire for more opportunities for excursions and outings.

Research into the understanding of poverty and social exclusion in Australia by the Social Policy and Research Centre of UNSW has found that people believe ‘essential items’ in life include more than basic material things like secure housing and regular meals. In a survey  sent to a random sample of the Australian population, as well as clients from community agencies, respondents listed things like being treated with respect and the ability to access key services such as health as essential for life in Australia today.

This broader understanding of what is needed to ensure a basic and acceptable standard of living is clearly supported by Burnside’s experience. Exposure or lack of it in the case of people who are disadvantaged to new experiences through outings and excursions has significant repercussions on a person’s physical, social and mental well being.

Our information revealed that parents especially would like more excursions for their children. In particular, they commented on how excursions help improve their child’s development. As one parent said: ‘We would like to go on more trips with the children to help build on language skills.’ Indeed, how does a child begin to understand the world around them without opportunities to see, hear, feel and experience new environments? How does a child learn about rivers and lakes without ever having seen one? How can a child appreciate different cultures without ever meeting someone from a different background? For one parent, the novelty of simply catching a bus was enough to provide much needed stimulation for her child. However, the lack of public transport around her local area made even this simple activity a rare experience.

Parents also noted that organised excursions and social activities with other families, such as holiday camps, had a positive impact on their child’s social skills and confidence. Service users commented that these activities enabled them to ‘make new friends’ who they can ‘do things with because they are in the same situation.’ This in turn helps to make changes in other areas of people’s lives it increases their social well being by improving their networks and reducing isolation.

Many children provided feedback too. While some longed for excursions that were clearly unobtainable, such as flying a plane or travelling overseas, others expressed a wish to experience every day activities that most people would take for granted such as a trip to the zoo, the movies or even a chance to go for a swim. For young people living in western NSW, the opportunity to swim in the sea is clearly a big thing. In a recent conversation, one 19-year-old from Dubbo said: ‘Last year I went to the beach for the first time. It was freaky the waves and the way they moved. It felt like I was being thrown around.’

Clearly, in designing policies and programs to help lift people out of poverty, we must concentrate on improving the quality of and access to primary services such as employment, education and health. But if we are serious about ensuring disadvantaged people have access to an acceptable standard of living and quality of life, we also must be mindful of including opportunities to experience new and stimulating environments.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.