Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Poverty rises as you move from the centre

In Bill Bryson's fascinating book, Shakespeare, he says we know remarkably little about the man, and most of what we think we know has been dreamt up by overenthusiastic scholars. But of at least one point he was sure: in Shakespeare's London, rich and poor lived side by side. A case, I guess, of the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate.

They don't make cities like that anymore. Or rather, modern cities seem to be a lot more socially segregated, with the rich tending to live together on one side of the tracks and the poor living on the other.

Research undertaken some years ago by economists at the Australian National University found Australian cities had become more divided, and there is much American research to similar effect. But a research report to be issued on Wednesday has found something a bit different. It is Promoting Inclusion and Combating Deprivation, by Professor Peter Saunders and Dr Melissa Wong, of the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW.

They conducted a survey of 6000 people drawn at random from around Australia in May 2010. They got more than 2600 responses, which they divided into six categories according to where people lived: inner metropolitan area, outer metropolitan, large towns (more than 25,000 people), larger country towns (more than 10,000 people), small country towns (fewer than 10,000 people) and rural areas.

Not surprisingly, they found there were poor, socially disadvantaged people living in all areas. But they also found a strong correlation between where people live and how likely they are to be socially disadvantaged. As the degree of population concentration declines, the rate of social disadvantage tends to increase. To be blunt, the further out you go from the centre of big cities, the higher the proportion of poor people you find.

After allowing for family size, the average disposable income of households was $970 a week. But inner metropolitan households averaged 12 per cent above this, whereas rural households averaged 14 per cent below. (Of course, if some locations have a higher proportion of retired people, the average income will be lower.)

In inner metropolitan areas, the proportion of households living in poverty (that is, with incomes below half the median income) was 12 per cent. It rose to 12.4 per cent in outer metropolitan, 12.6 per cent in large towns, 14.8 per cent in larger country towns and 16.8 per cent in small country towns, dropping a little to 15.5 per cent (still the second highest rate) in rural areas.

Those poverty rates were calculated by the researchers. When the survey respondents were asked whether they considered themselves to be living in poverty, their answers followed pretty much the same pattern.

What's notable, however, is that their subjective assessments were about 2 percentage points lower than the calculated rates. So, unlike many of the rest of us, the genuinely poor don't seem to be feeling particularly sorry for themselves.

But poverty – how much money you have to spend – is not the only dimension of social disadvantage. And there's been controversy over the unavoidable arbitrariness of where poverty lines are drawn. So Saunders and his colleagues have put much work into developing a different approach, one based on people's access to 24 items that a majority of Australians responding to an earlier survey regard as the "essentials of life".

The items include a substantial meal at least once a day, warm clothes and bedding, a washing machine, a decent and secure home, roof and gutters that don't leak, a separate bed for each child, presents for family or friends at least once a year, being able to buy medicines prescribed by a doctor, and up to $500 in savings for an emergency.

When you assess the respondents to the latest survey according to their access to these essentials you find the same story: deprivation tends to rise as you progress from inner metropolitan to rural. The highest levels of deprivation are in social functioning (such as regular social contact with other people) and risk protection (such as car insurance).

All very interesting, but also worrying. Higher rates of social disengagement in smaller communities cast doubt on the happy notion that, in the country, everyone knows each other and everyone looks after each other. But it's not surprising that, the further out you are, the less your access to public services such as dentists and childcare. Nor that unemployment rates are usually much higher.

It's possible the socially disadvantaged tend to gravitate to the country – say, because rents are lower. The greater probability, however, is that people living further from the centre are more likely to suffer disadvantage because of the deficiencies of the areas in which they live.

The trouble is, disadvantage breeds disadvantage. Whatever problems you have of your own, they're likely to be compounded if a lot of the people around you have similar problems.

"Once population decline and poverty become entrenched in an area, further problems emerge that act as barriers for those who remain," the researchers say. "The result is that, increasingly, where one lives (or is born) has a major impact on one's life chances."

It follows that, as governments seek to reduce social disadvantage, they should see the disadvantaged not just as individuals needing help, but also as people living in disadvantaged areas – people unlikely to get far unless something is done to improve conditions in their district.