It is possible to overcome severe localised disadvantage when governments join residents and community organisations. As shown by the Community Adversity and Resilience report released this week, the ingredients for success are clarity of purpose, building social cohesion with organisational effectiveness, and patience. Disadvantage, long in the making, cannot be turned around in just a few years.
The backbone of the report is an index of social disadvantage that helps to establish priorities when it comes to selecting neighbourhoods for long-term special assistance. But the index has a wider policy application that cuts across many portfolios of government. These are important because not all areas with special needs are likely to be accommodated at any one time within intensive programs of community renewal. For example, research indicates that place effects - the net influence exerted by a locality on people's wellbeing after allowing for individual and family disadvantage - is strongest during the earliest stages of life and late adolescence. In the health field the disadvantage index should be used to ensure that post-natal outreach services, parenting support programs and children's diagnostic services are strongly represented within highly disadvantaged neighbourhoods, including those in rural and remote areas. The same applies to adolescent health services.
Few things are as important in avoiding or overcoming disadvantage as successfully completing school education. Preschool offers experiences and elemental learning that can compensate for educationally and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. More preschools attached to primary schools should be created in disadvantaged areas.
The educational and, thus, personal and social futures of many people are determined by their mid-primary years. Special funding should be provided either nationally or at the state level to enable an all-out effort to be made to help students successfully negotiate this stage of schooling. Part of the solution lies in ensuring a balance of old and new hands among the teachers in disadvantaged areas.
In the realm of government utilities, power and water suppliers need to be guided by knowledge of the cumulative social disadvantage in the areas they serve to deal equitably with defaults and delays in the payment of fees. An adequate level of community transport also needs to be provided in disadvantaged areas to ensure that residents can take advantage of human services provided by health, employment and income support agencies. In country areas there is often a need for community transport to enable people to use mainstream transport such as the Countrylink rail services.
Public housing authorities administering to socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods have a particular responsibility to attract and support the contributions of other government and non-government agencies. We also need feedback on the social and family consequences of drawing an ever increasing number of prisoners from a small number of neighbourhoods. A quarter of Victoria's prison admissions come from two point one per cent of the state's postcodes, and NSW draws the same proportion from three point two per cent.
The disadvantage index also has implications for services provided by government agencies or non-government organisations. These services need to be well synchronised in areas of marked social disadvantage, with planning based on a local area budget aligned with assessed needs. Frequently the situation involves a multiplicity of centrally allocated grants to different agencies.
Preventing disadvantage from becoming deeply entrenched in areas that are at risk of becoming so must become a general feature of social policy.