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Fireworks, fines and the statistics of disadvantage

March 2018

Canberra’s recent birthday fireworks display provided an unexpected catalyst for a burst of discussion about disadvantage in the nation’s capital. The decision by the National Capital Authority to close several car parks closest to the March 17 Skyfire event, claiming adherence to anti-terrorism guidelines, resulted in a record number of fines issued for vehicles parked on nearby grassed areas.

Many complained in letters to The Canberra Times that the $97 infringement notices turned a free event into a costly one for low income families. Veteran Canberra opinion writer Ian Warden called for the ACT to implement a policy similar to the Scandinavian countries, where motoring fines are means tested.

In Finland, for example, the police who pull a driver over for speeding will log into a national taxpayer database to determine the motorist’s income, and fine the driver based on his or her annual earnings. One driver, who was found to earn equivalent to AUD$10.5 million a year, was fined $87,000 for doing 15 miles above the speed limit. Similarly, infringement notices for those on lower incomes reflect their capacity to pay a fine without it having too strenuous an impact on their ability to manage financially.

Many online comments about the Skyfire parking fines made the pertinent point that the best way to avoid fines was to avoid breaking the rules, but quite a few supporters of Warden’s argument pointed out that the amount charged for fines was determined by a calculation around average incomes, and that this failed to account for the many disadvantaged Canberrans who struggle with the capital’s high cost of living. These Canberrans, for whom a $97 parking fine may be a massive hit, are rarely taken into account in discussions that use the average ACT income as a measure.

This is the central point of the Hidden Disadvantage in the ACT report, issued during National Anti-Poverty Week 2017 by NATSEM (the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling) and ACTCOSS. While the ACT has a higher median income than the other states and territories, there are pockets of disadvantage in the ACT that are hidden by statistics analysing population averages. For this reason, the Hidden Disadvantage report uses Census data to drill down on small area demographics (a small area is a cluster of around 150 households, the second smallest measure of Census data available). The study’s findings may be surprising to many who see Canberra as a comparatively rich town. Plotting ACT small area data against national capital city averages, the study reported that more than 37,000 Canberrans lived in low income households (where the household income was less than $25,999 a year) including 7,867 children, or 12 per cent of all children in the ACT.

An analysis of the number of households living with multiple forms of disadvantage illuminated how different stressors – such as low income combined with low education and high rent – could make it very difficult for Canberra families to move beyond poverty. Thirty-eight of the ACT’s small areas had at least one indicator of disadvantage where the rate was above the national capital city average, while close to 20 per cent of total small areas in the ACT, or one in five, experienced two or more indicators of disadvantage above the capital city average. Alarmingly, there were two small areas in Canberra – that’s 300 households – that experienced five measures of disadvantage at higher than capital city average levels.

Even broken down into small areas, it can be hard to see the people behind the statistics, but some of their stories were captured by ACTCOSS in its Stories of Home report, which illustrated the ways in which homelessness and housing pressures were compounded by other forms of disadvantage, such as mental illness, domestic and family violence and unemployment. For example, one woman on a low income left her violent partner, but Canberra’s high rents meant she and her young child had no choice but to live in a house with no heating or cooling, and she would regularly go without food to ensure her son was fed. In another story, a young asylum seeker was unable to find secure housing in Canberra because the conditions of his bridging visa meant he was not permitted to work more than a small number of hours. The situation had a negative impact on his studies and his ability to establish a new life in Canberra.

The Australian Child Wellbeing Project, a national survey of 5,440 children aged 9-14, found that children who experienced disadvantage were more likely to have lowered levels of wellbeing, including higher levels of health complaints and bullying, and lower levels of engagement at school and social support. The children most likely to experience lower wellbeing were those already recognised as marginalised or disadvantaged: young people with disability, young carers, those from low income households, culturally and linguistically diverse young people, Indigenous young people, and those living in remote Australia or in out of home care.

Surprisingly, the study found one in five young people went to school or to bed hungry, and that children in a marginalised group were more likely than others to go hungry and to experience the flow-on effects of hunger – missing school, increased health complaints, bullying and low engagement at school.

Realising that a proportion of Canberra’s children go to school or bed hungry is an immensely sobering thought, and belies the national image of Canberra as a wealthy town filled with well-paid public servants. Understanding more about the families in which those children live is key to discussions around tackling disadvantage in Canberra. We need to find a way to identify and support disadvantaged families and households, without passing on the stigma that can come with identifying poverty. As the Hidden Disadvantage report pointed out, a strength of our community is the level of collaboration between the Government, community, business and research sectors, working together to address disadvantage. Working together, we do have the power to ensure that no Canberrans are left out, or left behind.