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NEWS: One in eight Australians live in poverty.

Jessica (right) and her friend Vicky.

UPDATE: New research has revealed up to one in eight Australians are living below the poverty line. The Australian Council of Social Service report found more than 2.2 million Australians live in poverty, including more than half a million children.

A few weeks ago ABC’s Four Corners ran a report on the Australian children growing up in Australia’s “welfare ghetto”.

At the time, Mamamia wrote:

When 12-year-old Jessica Burns was asked what she wanted from her future, she answered: “a good job, like where you get like heaps of money. I’d be like a decent mum, like a husband with no violence and everything, so it could be a happy family, you know, but like that would never happen…”

They say the simplest dreams are the hardest to come by but it’s a sad and sorry state of affairs when a 12-year-old Australian kid can’t be excited and optimistic about what’s lies ahead. But that’s the way it is for thousands of children – here in our country – who are living below the poverty line.

Last night’s Four Corners program on the ABC focused on the children of five families living in the NSW suburb of Claymore. Claymore is a public housing estate which was built by the New South Wales Government in the 1970s and is home to more than 3000 of the state’s poorest families.

Thirty years on from its creation: Claymore is a “welfare ghetto.”

Jessica’s is one of the families who live there. When ABC reporter Sarah Ferguson (Sarah is the same journalist who exposed the abattoir atrocities in Indonesia) arrives at their house, Jessica hasn’t been to school for two days, her 14-year-old brother Hayden is complaining he’s being bullied at school and her father Brett has moved from the house into the garage because of arguments with Jessica’s mother Caroline. (It’s later revealed that Brett has physically abused Caroline. In front of the children.) The family rely on Centrelink payments to survive.

Kristen’s 14-year-ol Alana

SARAH FERGUSON: Caroline Burns sometimes struggles to make ends meet.

CAROLINE: You know sometimes we have to go the second hand shops but – and I’m not fond of second hand shoes, but you can go to the new section. So and they’ve got some nice stuff there and it doesn’t it doesn’t bother me really.

JESSICA: She does have enough money sometimes, but just like, ’cause her pay day’s on Friday and if something is in the week and it’s like too much money for example, I don’t know, like $100 or some s**t, I don’t say anything, I don’t bother.

SARAH FERGUSON: Sometimes Jessica misses out.

JESSICA: It was a ‘scursion and I really wanted to go. And then, I was going to ask, but I didn’t. Because I thought like maybe they needed the money for something else.

CAROLINE: I hate having to say no. I really hate having to say no.

On the other side of Claymore, lives the Blake family. The core of the family is Kristen. She’s a single mother looking after five children. The youngest, Katelynn, is just five months old. Kristen worked in an aged care facility until she became pregnant with Katelynn and she says that she wants to teach her kids about the importance of having a job. Three of the children Katelynn is raising are biologically her sister’s kids.

SARAH FERGUSON: What was the situation with Amy and the children? Why did you step in?

KRISTEN: A lotta drug problems, drug addiction, mental problems. She would bring her paranoia out onto her children. She wouldn’t let the kids play outside, she would keep them confided in the one room, not even allowed to go upstairs. She shaved Alanah’s head as a child so that nobody would rape her.

SARAH FERGUSON: Alanah is now 14.

(To Alanah): Were you scared when you were living there?

ALANAH: Yeah ’cause we had like other people watching us, not just her, people we didn’t know, friends that gave her drugs. We had her watching us.

KRISTEN: It was Alanah mainly who was affected with what happened because she was three nearly four and she would have to mother Jacob. And if it wasn’t for her he wouldn’t have been fed. Whatever was in the cupboard is whatever she fed him, you know.

SARAH FERGUSON: As far as the three children are concerned Kristen is their mother now.

The report exposed the harsh realities of daily life for these kids who are “growing up poor” right here in Sydney. Many don’t have relationships with one or both of their parents (more than half the families in Claymore have only one parent).

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Kids have parents who cannot read or write. The rate of teenage pregnancy in Claymore is five times the national average. And according to one 15-year-old girl, young boys in the town just “get drunk, they smoke a bit of weed and they burn houses down.”

Kids in the neighbourhood

Many of the children we met had stories of random violence, much of it linked to drug and alcohol abuse.

All of them talked to us more about fear than they did about money or missing out.

The obvious question arises: why is so much pain and disadvantage concentrated in one suburb?

It’s not as if successive governments didn’t know what was happening here.

1n 2010, more than 30 years after the suburb was built, the federal and state Labor governments announced a multi-million plan to demolish Claymore and start again.

Bulldozers moved in last year, 99 houses were knocked down.

Almost 1,000 more were slated for demolition, to be replaced by a mix of private and public housing, radically changing the makeup of the suburb.

But the incoming state Liberal government says no money was budgeted to pay for the re-development.

The project is on hold.

This kind of poverty is not limited to Claymore and its surrounds. According to a recent report, there are more than 2.2 million Australians living below the poverty line. More than 600,000 children under 15 live in households where no-one has a job.

Mamamia spoke to Captain Michelle White of the Salvation Army, who said the problem of children growing up poor was widespread. “The situation with children experiencing poverty as a result of their parents being dependent upon Centrelink is indiscriminate. It’s not just a pocket here and a pocket there. Basically when a parent’s only source of income is from centrelink the impact upon the child is significant.”

So how do you fix it? Michelle says early intervention is critical. “It’s all about connecting with children and family and young people and giving them positive outsets and engaging young people,” she says.

Author and media commentator Jane Caro also spoke to Mamamia. She is adamant that education is the key to giving these kids a future. She says that schools need resources to make a difference. (Editor’s Note: The NSW Government recently announced a $1.7 billion cut to education spending). Jane writes for Mamamia:

Jane Caro

Australia is the 3rd lowest spender in the OECD on public education. Yet we have a school system that is increasingly dividing itself along social class lines. This is true to some extent of all education systems, but in Australia we compound the inevitable effect of geographical concentrations of poverty and disadvantage – as highlighted on 4 Corners last night – by educating our advantaged and disadvantaged kids not just in different schools but in entirely different publicly subsidised education systems.

Our most advantaged kids are increasingly leaving the public school system for private schools and taking all their resources, including their aspirations, cultural capital and engaged and involved parents with them.

World wide research shows that when you concentrate disadvantaged kids in the same schools it compounds their disadvantage. In other words, they do worse than they would in a more mixed environment. We are increasingly creating ghettos of privilege and underprivilege in our education system.
If we want to offer the children of Claymore real hope for their future, we must start funding the schools they go to realistically. If we are going to lump our poorest kids together  in the same schools, we must fund those schools as welfare hubs, reduce class sizes and make sure they are staffed by highly skilled and specialised teachers who are rewarded appropriately for tackling the huge educational disadvantages that are inevitably caused by poverty.
If public education is the promise one generation makes to the next, ours is the first generation to break this promise – particularly to our poorest and most vulnerable children – since universal, compulsory, secular education for all children was introduced back in the 19th century. Education funding shouldn’t be about rewarding or punishing parents, it should be about helping all our children regardless of how lucky or unlucky they were in the lottery of birth.

Minister for School Education Peter Garrett spoke at the opening of a $1.7 million performing arts centre at Claymore’s local high school. His message to the students: “We have total confidence and faith in you, in the teachers in this school and the community schools. And total faith and confidence in the students at these schools that can be whatever they want to be, that they can realise their dreams and their potential…”

Perhaps. But the daily reality for kids in Claymore is not one of dreams and potential – it is an overwhelming sense of helplessness and being trapped in a cycle they may never break out of.

You can watch the full report here.