“Rights and Entitlements in Times of Austerity”

 

Attended by Amy Lawton from WESTIR Limited
28-30 September 2015    

 

The annual Australian Social Policy Conference was hosted by the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW from 28-30 September 2015. Celebrating its 35th year, the conference theme was “Rights and Entitlements in Times of Austerity”, focusing on the fallout from the Global Financial Crisis and its impact on the welfare sector. Since the Global Financial Crisis, the overall direction of social policy has been towards a more targeting, more user-pays, more activation, less entitlement and more punitive sanctions for those who default on their obligations. Growing inequality is increasingly accepted as an immutable characteristic of the modern welfare state. These trends are a matter of grave concern for the more vulnerable members of society and for those working with them. At the same time, austerity could potentially spur creativity, forcing the development of new ways to harness social resources to address poverty, marginalisation and exclusion. The importance of learning from each other’s experience is therefore crucial for addressing the challenges of maintaining rights and entitlements in the face of global austerity. This year’s conference brought together researchers, practitioners and policy makers across all disciplines to explore and debate this important topic.  

The conference program can be viewed here: https://www.aspc.unsw.edu.au/program-0  

 

Keynote Speakers

Day 1: Robert Manne (Emeritus Professor and Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, LaTrobe University) – Climate Change: Crisis for humankind, Crisis for the Social Sciences

 

Robert began the conference discussing climate change and why the international community collectively have not been able to coordinate an effective response to this urgent issue. He suggested some reasons for this, including the rise of organised denialism, climate change beyond the capacity of current political systems characterised by extreme political polarisation, and the nature of industrial society. Robert suggests that physical scientists have been able to come to a consensus on the catastrophic consequences of climate change yet the social sciences are still struggling to come to a point of collective policy action, leading to a crisis for both humankind and the social policy sphere.

 

Day 2: Jane Waldfogel (Compton Foundation Centennial Professor of Social Work and Public Affairs, School of Social Work, Columbia University) – Understanding and reducing inequalities in child development

 

Jane presented findings from her latest co-authored book ‘Too Many Children Left Behind’. The book compares child achievement outcomes from low and high socioeconomic status families across United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. The socioeconomic status of families were measured based on the level of parental education. Overall, the United States had comparatively worse scores for child development than comparative countries, particularly Canada and Australia. There was also considerable inequality already present for children at school entry, therefore schools cannot be fully responsible for this increasing gap. Jane concluded her talk with a discussion on policies to reduce inequality in child development, including more early learning support, raising family incomes and addressing increasing income inequality, and improving the quality and incentives associated with teaching and learning. 

 

Day 3: Guy Standing (Professor of Development Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) – The expanding precariat: Reviving empathy and universalism 

 

Guy drew on his recent book ‘A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens’, highlighting that the neoliberal global market has severely affected the precariat (a social class formed by people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability and security. The utilitarian politics of the era has resulted in a regressive social policy mix of means-testing, behaviour-testing and an increasingly casualised workforce. As a result, a new authoritarian moralism has also taken hold, whittling away social solidarity, public commons and all precariat rights. Above all, it has eroded the vital human sentiment of compassion and empathy, calling for a magna carta based on republican freedom, equality and fraternity.

 

Conference paper presented from WESTIR Limited

Amy Lawton from WESTIR Limited presented a paper on Day 2 of the conference entitled ‘Healthy food as a human right: effective food security policy in an ever-changing political environment’. The paper’s abstract is below and the full conference paper is available upon request.

Food insecurity has become one of the biggest global issues of the twenty first century, with the global financial crisis alone pushing millions of people worldwide further into poverty and less able to adequately feed themselves. Developed countries participating in the self regulated global market are not immune to food insecurity, particularly amongst their socially disadvantaged populations. As a result, there continues to be growing pressure on First World governments to develop social policies and plans dedicated to advancing the ‘food for all’ agenda. This paper provides an overview of innovative food security policies and plans being implemented across all government levels in developed countries, including Australia. It also discusses recent research undertaken for a local government in Western Sydney to expand their food access policy into a more robust, multidisciplinary food security plan underpinned on social justice principles. Overall, the paper highlights major factors that impact the ability for food security to be successfully embedded into the agenda of developed governments. Based on the case studies discussed, the paper also suggests the key tools practitioners require to develop and implement strong evidence-based food security policy as these are vital to realising the right to food for all citizens in an ever-changing political environment.

 

Other attended sessions (for other abstracts, please refer to conference booklet)

 

Day 1

Psychological wellbeing and social participation of recently arrived humanitarian migrants Ben Edwards, John De Maio (presenter), Michelle Silbert, Diana Smart

 

The Building a New Life in Australia study is a longitudinal research study that aims to provide a broad evidence base to assist policy development and program improvement and better understand the factors that influence humanitarian migrant settlement outcomes. The study population comprises almost 2,400 refugees and asylum seekers, whose settlement journey from arrival in Australia to eligibility for citizenship will be followed. The paper described preliminary findings from Wave 1 and 2 data, focusing on psychological wellbeing and social participation in the early years of settlement. It found that most humanitarian migrants has experienced trauma and persecution before arriving in Australia, had spent time in refugee camps, had low levels of trust for the government and low levels of English proficiency. In particular, around a third of the cohort had experienced cumulative trauma (3 or more trauma events) and around a quarter may have had or were experiencing post-traumatic stress. 

 

Redress for adults harmed in out-of-home care as children: Social policy in times of austerity Suellen Murray (presenter)

Internationally public inquiries have demonstrated that many children brought up in out-of-home care have experienced abuse and other harm, which have had long-term and ongoing impacts. Redress schemes are in place in a number of countries to provide compensation and reparation. These schemes vary according to the scope of harm addressed, population groups targeted, the nature of validation, and the forms of redress. Ireland’s redress scheme for people who grew up in care has been one of the most comprehensive, including an apology, relatively generous financial compensation, resourcing of mental health and other services, and more recently a program of targeted individual care services. In Australia, there have been modest financial redress schemes in some states, state based and national apologies and some resourcing of support services. A national financial redress scheme, as well as additional resourcing of targeted and community support services, continue to be sought by advocates. Such responses were recommended by the three national Australian inquiries into out-of-home care held in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is the most recent inquiry to demonstrate evidence of harm to children in care, with this group being the largest of all those coming forward to the Royal Commission.

 

Day 2

Is the glass half full or half empty? Food security and social safety net programs in rural Bangladesh K M Kabirul Islam (presenter) 

 

Since its declaration as an independent nation, Bangladesh has been fighting for food security as an approach to combating poverty. Soon after birth, the nation encountered a famine that accounted for a loss of several million lives. The issue of food security arguably occupies the major research agenda in Bangladesh. In order to combat poverty, governments have initiated Social Safety Net Programs (SSNPs) to address the issue. This paper captured the impact of five important SSNPs on ensuring food security of the rural poor people. The research revealed that the support provided by the selected SSNPs is very meagre and none are able to ensure food security of the beneficiaries for a whole month; they can only offer partial support. It also unveils some of the governance issues: bribes, leakages, politicization, nepotism and overlapping. Overall, the majority of the poorest people are excluded from the poverty alleviation programs, with both beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries realising that charity is not the answer to poverty as it creates dependency. Policy interventions should focus on providing work opportunities for those who are physically able and those who are disabled need to be provided an appropriate amount in order to maintain food security.

 

Day 3

Contextualising trauma and resilience: Recovery responses Charles Waldegrave (presenter) 

 

This paper presented the findings of a trauma and resilience survey carried out during recovery work in Samoa immediately after the 2009 tsunami, follow-up work two years later in Samoa and after the Christchurch earthquakes. Interview data was collected from 470 families from the villages directly impacted. The survey included questions from the Child Trauma Screening Questionnaire and these were set alongside other questions about wellness and recovery. A significant correlation between wellbeing and trauma was found. However, many of those who scored highly for trauma also scored highly on wellbeing measures, indicating that even when experiencing trauma, individuals are able to maintain wellbeing. The ‘double results’ heighten the possibilities of enhancing resilient recovery responses from people with trauma symptoms. The trauma and resilience programs initiated in Samoa and New Zealand focused on promoting a sense of safety, promoting calming, promoting sense of self and collective efficacy, promote connectiveness and promoting hope. Overall, resilience will become an increasingly important factor in increasing occurrence and intensity of natural disasters as a result of climate change.

 

Overall impressions of the conference

It appears that a climate of austerity is having a major impact on the rights and entitlements across society’s most vulnerable populations in Australia and abroad, including refugees, migrants, children and the socioeconomically disadvantaged. The redefining and redesigning of welfare systems in the neoliberal paradigm is causing increasing inequality for current and future generations. It appears that for the gammit of social issues discussed throughout the conference, the likelihood of a holistic social policy response underpinned on human rights, empowerment and collective action is unlikely at this point in time. There are many reasons for this, including the rise of organised denialism impacting current political and governance structures (particularly around evidence bases) and the decline of social solidarity. The conference also highlighted the need for empowerment and resilience to be considered in social policy circles, particularly as social systems create environments that are more unpredictable and insecure.