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"Is Poverty Getting Worse or Better?"

This week, the NTCOSS conference in Darwin brought the Human Services Sector together to ponder the question of poverty. On a day to day basis, helping fellow Territorians, caught in a cycle of poverty, can overshadow the harrowing state we face as a larger community. The whole sector took this chance to step back and reorient. ASYASS staff left with a renewed sense of direction.

A shocking fact was that the NT carries the burden of 12% the National rate of homelessness yet receives a mere 1% of the funding. Lobbying for an equitable share of National funding has always been a high priority for Sector leaders. Understanding what needs to change to make that happen has never been more important. Part of that shift could be to change the mindset of politicians, and the community, on the reality of homelessness and prevention.

The reality is that homelessness is not a lifestyle choice. In our lucky country Australia, 1 in 6 children live below the poverty line. Look at the kids in the photo - one of their friends is unable to enjoy that party. We could help that child.

Children do not choose the households they have access to. If a child happens to live on community, it will cost that household $312 more to buy a cart of healthy food, than it does in urban areas. When that child becomes a young adult, they could qualify as part of the 64% of young people on Youth Allowance who live below the poverty line. At some point along the way, that child went from a 1 in 6 (approx. %17) to a 64% cohort. Statistic to statistic, one thing is clear; poverty is insidious, and for the individual, it's likely to get worse.

The perpetuation of poverty is multifaceted. If health is a winding road and poverty is oncoming traffic then the social determinants of health are road blocks and major detours. The World Health Organisation (WHO) categorised the key determinants of health. By determinants we mean things which influence good or bad health. Of the 6 main determinants of health, the social gradient has the greatest effect on the most people. The circumstance a person finds themselves in; rich or poor, male or female, with or without disability, educated or not - these, according to Sir Michael Marmot, are the conditions on which we need to focus. Ultimately, we cannot and should not blame individuals; doing so does not arm them with a sense of control. Telling someone to "get a job" when they feel excluded from employment, does not help them get employed.

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In Sir Michael Marmot's "The health gap: Doctors and the social determinants of health" (, he reveals that mortality in the US is on the rise. Not just for the poor; but for the average person. The psychosocial effects of negative health are infectious to the social gradient, so if we won't change for the increasing number of individuals on our streets, we should change for our neighbours, for our children, and for ourselves. Suddenly, the jump from 17% to 64% makes sense when accounting for the overflow of the social gradient.

Change means levelling the social determinants of inequality. For a start, if we expect the sweeping domino effect of change to occur, we cannot accept the fact that someone in our society is paying $312 more than what urban people pay for vital, healthy food, every time they shop. What's more, policy must change. In 1993 the Howard Government froze the Newstart Allowance and for 26 years it has remained a paltry $49.70 per day for a single person; less if you choose not to deny your spouse. If you have children, you get an extra $3 to contribute to their trolley of healthy food.

If you'd like to know more about the factors that drive poverty, Sir Micheal Marmot's four-part series from the 2016 Boyer Lectures on a "Fair Australia" is delivered with passion and authority - you can find it here:

The feeling of control is empowering. Control over money, over where you choose to live, over our social circumstance within the vast gradient of society. When people feel like they have control they grasp it like a precious lifeline. We have the power to give our community that sense of agency we all so desperately need.

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