Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
Yet another sensationalist headline on poverty in Australia appeared this week, indicating poverty rates in Victoria are as high as 13%, and more than one in 10 Victorians are ‘poor’.
The breathless report by the Victorian Council of Social Services (VCOSS) found “alarmingly” there is no corner of Victoria untouched by poverty. But this reporting is misleading at best and irresponsible at worst.
Firstly, the report did not measure absolute poverty, but what is known as relative poverty — a subjective measure of deprivation, obtained by comparing person A’s income to person B’s income. This means if person B is wealthy, person A could be relatively poor.
In Australia, relative poverty is generally defined as receiving less than half the national median household income.
The limitations of this measure are obvious. If the median income increases, more people could be classified as poor — even though their absolute level of deprivation remains unchanged (or may even have improved).
Secondly, many Australians go through periods of low income — which does not necessarily indicate material deprivation or socio-economic disadvantage.
The obvious example is university students. Even VCOSS admitted the 13% figure would have picked up thousands of students in the Melbourne area. In retrospect, it is certain that I would have been technically classified as poor when I was a student at Sydney University a decade ago.
In fact, this simply reflects life cycle factors. Most people’s earnings peak and ebb during certain stages of their lives.
Consequently, retirees are more likely to be counted as poor by having lower incomes in that stage of their lives. Similarly, pensioners can be picked up in measures of relative poverty by being asset rich and cash poor.
The risk of elevating relative poverty as a problem is that governments will become distracted from tackling real, persistent disadvantage in Australia.
There are about 700,000 Australians — roughly 3% of our population — who experience entrenched socio-economic disadvantage.
Our concern should be focused on those Australians, particularly on early intervention for vulnerable children who would otherwise be caught in an intergenerational cycle of poverty and disadvantage.
But unfortunately for VCOSS, a 3% poverty rate doesn’t make for a news-grabbing headline.
At a time when Australia is grappling with the latest example of Islamist-inspired terrorism on the streets of Melbourne, Britain is also dealing with another impact of extremism.
The application for asylum by Asia Bibi — a Pakistani Christian whose recent acquittal of charges of blasphemy and insulting Mohammed sparked violent protests led by Islamic hardliners — was rejected by the UK government, based on security concerns and fear of stirring up unrest among some sections of the community.
This is a long way from the dream of a harmonious multicultural society in which all citizens, regardless of race or creed, enjoy the same rights and liberties.
Islamists believe that religious obligations trump their obligations as citizens, and this belief fundamentally undermines the civil compact of mutual respect for the freedoms of all that lies at heart of Western liberal democracy.
We are of course talking about small number of radicals who hold extreme views and are not representative of the vast majority of Muslims.
However, during the session on child protection in which I took part at London’s recent Battle of Ideas conference, there was disturbing discussion of the UK child grooming gangs — which involved serial child sexual assaults by mostly Muslim men, often from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds.
As expected, a question from the audience asked what role the offenders’ religion played?
My answer is that the offending by Muslim men had nothing to do with the theology of Islam, per se, but it would be wrong not to consider the role their cultural backgrounds may have played.
This is to say: we should think about the implications not in terms of religion, but in terms of immigration policy and the selection and integration of migrants.
However, in audience were a number of young Muslim women who eagerly sought out the microphone to express their views.
To all intents and purposes, they were young British women; educated and articulate. But they were also quick to take issue with any suggestion that Islam had anything to do with Rotherham and its sequels.
They had a point. But what struck me was how visceral their reaction was to any perceived slight on Islam, especially as they appeared to be — in all other respects — fully assimilated (to use an old fashioned term) right down to their accents and their jeans and sneakers — without a hijab, let alone a burka, in sight.
Such a demonstrable commitment to ‘defending the faith’ was therefore unusual — and therefore striking — to encounter firsthand, when in a Western nation like Australia we are by habit and custom used to the religious being subordinate to the secular.
This was a different, and obviously less extreme, expression of a higher religious loyalty that was clearly central to these young women’s identity.
But reflecting on these events makes one ponder what the implications may be for the cohesiveness of British society.
Opponents of non-government schools often claim Australia’s school system is grossly inequitable. But this is not true.
Multiple international OECD reports have concluded the same thing: Australia has lower inequity than the OECD average. That is, student socio-economic status has less of an impact on student achievement in Australia than it does on average in the OECD.
A recent OECD report attributed 11.7% of the variation in Australian students’ science scores to socio-economic status, compared with the 12.9% OECD average and 16.8% in top-performing country, Singapore.
While on average, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds tend to have lower academic performance, many students — known as ‘resilient’ students — buck this trend and perform relatively well.
So how can we produce more resilient students? An OECD study on the topic found there is no significant relationship between school resources and the proportion of resilient students in Australia. While extra money for schools would certainly help in some developing countries, in countries like Australia — which already has relatively high school funding levels — more funds are unlikely to spark significant improvement, due to diminishing marginal returns on spending.
However, the same OECD study found there is a significant relationship between having a classroom climate conducive to learning — in other words, orderly classes and less student disruption — and student resilience in Australia. We know that Australia’s school system appears to have an issue with student misbehaviour. So perhaps the best policy approach to help disadvantaged students, is to focus on improving school climate in Australia, which wouldn’t necessarily require much more taxpayer funding.
It’s unfortunate that the political discourse about educational disadvantage is limited to ‘fairer funding’. In reality, there are other important issues being neglected.