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A girl of 13, starving: it’s a glimpse into Australia’s disadvantage and how governments are failing

This is the cutting-edge of genuine disadvantage in our society. Unfortunately, governments don’t seem to understand it and, for so many others across our society, it is easier to turn a blind eye than to address it effectively.


Governments concentrate instead on the big announcement. Detached from the people who need their help, they rarely understand what will work. This has certainly been the case with promised relief for bushfire, flood and drought victims, and for the impacts of COVID-19.

The chief executive of Learning Ground has delivered a summary of its many challenges. Many existed pre-COVID-19: grief and loss, lack of confidence and self-esteem, anxiety, racial or religious taunts, families deprived of suitable accommodation, food and clothing, drug and alcohol abuse, encounters with police, family breakdown, inability to keep up with school work, suspensions.

But the pandemic has exacerbated these crisis points at Learning Ground, just as it exposed failings that had already been uncovered by the aged care royal commission. Many young people have dropped out of school since the COVID-19 lockdown. While there is understandably stronger engagement than ever with electronic devices, many teenagers use them late into the night, sleep during the day and skip school, or if they do attend they’re too tired to learn.

For the first time, young people are dropping in – and out – of Learning Ground while speaking about the futility of making an effort. Before the virus their attendance had been regular.

Drug and alcohol use has increased markedly for some teenagers as well as adults in their homes. So has violence in the home. If not drugs or alcohol, people are using Netflix to avoid the problems beyond their control. Parents are not answering phone calls, fearing debt collectors.

Governments, both state and federal, are making insufficient effort to address the social needs of the 21st century. These are not confined to the needs of the poor. The challenges go way beyond creating jobs. Some departments dedicated to family support acknowledge that staff are burnt out, Learning Ground’s CEO reveals. They are overworked and become little better than pen pushers.

Governments talk a lot about building resilient communities. For a start, they had better learn a thing or two about those communities and what they really need.

*Katlyn is not her real name.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

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