Missing Out Matters: Child Poverty in Western Australia

Adjunct Professor Tony Pietropiccolo AM

Director, Centrecare Inc and co-Founder, Valuing Children Initiative

Children are vulnerable. Their vulnerability makes them highly susceptible to the impact of poverty. There is significant research evidence showing the negative and often traumatic impact that poverty has on children. Poverty in children, especially very young children, affects their brain development, contributes to lower levels of school readiness and stymies their social and cognitive competencies. It impacts on children’s mental health, development of motor skills and sense of security.

The result of experiences largely created by poverty, can have tragic, long-term outcomes for many children who often face an adult life of poor educational achievement, unemployment, homelessness and other personal problems. Entrenched poverty that continues for extended periods creates experiences that become habitual and difficult to escape.

The position taken by many Australian decision makers that they will wait for scientific evidence and/or financial justifications before dealing with child poverty denies the moral dimension of the issue. Such a position lacks compassion and a disregard for the human aspect of the problem.

Children living in poverty can rightly expect that those with the ability to help them will do so. They would be justified in believing that they are valued enough to move the hearts and minds of those who have the power and means to effect change. For them to expect urgent action is not unreasonable as every month and year of their poverty results in severe and longstanding consequences.

The ethical dimension associated with child poverty is often overlooked. The major focus is on measuring the financial cost of poverty and undertaking scientific investigation of it.

Such measurement and analysis are important in better understanding the impact and effectiveness of interventions. However, both are of limited value unless founded on an ethical framework that informs the resulting conclusions and actions. There is little value in knowing how poverty affects children and having an accurate actuarial understanding
of the problem if this is not accompanied by a moral sensitivity that obliges an active and committed response. Discussions on child poverty necessarily need to include challenging questions on ethical principles and morality if such discussions are to have a humanitarian dimension. This may avoid limiting child poverty to issues of money and process.

Child poverty is unlikely to be resolved in Australia while it is seen primarily as an economic and political issue devoid of moral considerations. Unless economic factors are encapsulated within moral imperatives, responses to child poverty will lack the passion, commitment and purposeful drive essential to its significant reduction, if not elimination.

The ethical dimension is an essential element of any serious discussion, debate and proposed action on child poverty.

Given the negative impact that child poverty has on children, society cannot but take an interest in its resolution. It could only withdraw from this responsibility if it believed that it was acceptable for children to remain living in poverty and to suffer its inevitable, negative consequences.

This raises a significant moral question. On what grounds can leaving children in poverty be justified? The mental, physical and emotional needs of children in poverty cannot be consciously and conscientiously ignored. A just society cannot turn away from such a challenge. It needs to meaningfully respond. To do otherwise is to knowingly abandon vulnerable children to endure harm and a lifetime of unfulfilled potential.

Originally published – Commissioner for Children and Young People 2021, Missing out matters: Child poverty in Western Australia. Commissioner for Children and Young People WA 2021.