OPINION

Australian children, young people living in poverty

SURVIVAL: Netflix's Squid Game quickly became a cult hit. Picture: Netflix
SURVIVAL: Netflix's Squid Game quickly became a cult hit. Picture: Netflix

I sat down recently to watch Netflix's cult hit Squid Game. We clearly can't get enough of South Korean content at the moment - Oscar-winner Parasite drew us to the box office, while Squid Game recently shot to number one in Australia.

A common theme in both is the challenge of living in poverty.

The opening scene to Parasite, where the bright and hardworking Kim family folds pizza boxes to earn enough to survive, stays with you long after the film has ended.

A fumigator walks past an open window to their crumbling basement flat, spewing toxins to kill pests. Father Ki-taek says "Leave it open, we'll get a free extermination."

While this is obviously dark humour, for Australians, it's easy to think, "What is going wrong in South Korea?"

But staggeringly, 1.2 million children and young people live below the poverty line in our own country.

Importantly, that figure, from the Australian Council of Social Service and the University of New South Wales' last Poverty in Australia 2020 report, predates the COVID-19 crisis.

This research measures poverty through household income, which isn't a holistic picture but is the best guide we have.

While we wait for the latest data, we have a growing concern that the gap between the haves and have nots is widening, especially after long lockdowns in our two most populous states this year.

Our most in need are those who are most at risk of prolonged unemployment.

The students The Smith Family works with mostly live in the outer suburbs of major cities and we don't often see them represented in mainstream media.

But our support workers see the compounding dimensions of poverty every day, and how this is playing out for families.

Families experiencing disadvantage can lack the resources to cope with major upheavals outside their control, meaning many are only one step away from crisis.

Or, as the saying goes, we're all in the same storm, but not travelling in the same boat.

Yet of particular interest to me as the CEO of a national children's education charity, is how popular South Korean content like Squid Game depicts access to education as life changing, and something that can mean the difference between struggling, and fulfilling one's potential.

We know characters who haven't completed further education, like the Kim family of Parasite, are clever and kind (some of them easily pass as qualified tutors), but they're blocked from ever being on equal footing with their more highly-trained peers.

A family friend of the Kims has access to many more opportunities through attending university, while Sang-woo from Squid Game is used to having doors open to him, as a Seoul National University graduate.

I see the parallels in Australia, and because of what we do, I'm increasingly concerned about the flow-on impacts of the pandemic on the learning outcomes of the young people we help.

At a time when Year 12 exams are underway, and their outcomes influencing the futures of many students, a new survey of our frontline workers who directly support families, paints a dire picture.

About three quarters of those surveyed said students they work with have missed learning as a direct result of the pandemic, based on the feedback they've received from parents or schools.

The same proportion said they believe some students are at risk of disengaging with their learning as a result of disruption caused by COVID-19.

Almost half said some students are at risk of not returning to school.

Worryingly, 87 per cent of our support workers said digital issues are continuing to impact on students and families.

These could be a lack of access to devices and reliable internet, or a lack of digital skills or capability.

After almost two years of the pandemic, with home schooling continuing for weeks and months in some states, this is just not right.

I personally know of a family who got their first laptop ever through The Smith Family's Digital Inclusion program in August, which sadly is a common story.

The family had struggled previously to access essential services through one mobile phone, and the single mum of the household who has lost work due to the pandemic, reports going hungry so her children can eat.

This should be unimaginable in a wealthy country like Australia. But it's happening.

So, as we binge on South Korean dramas, we would do well to reflect on the experiences of our fellow Australians.

Childhood poverty persists in this country despite years of economic prosperity, and while economic growth is vitally important to addressing poverty, it's not a 'silver bullet'.

Education can set up young people to create better futures for themselves.

And facing up to the reality that poverty exists here would be a great start towards achieving that.

  • Doug Taylor joined The Smith Family as CEO in August. He's also a director of the Australian Centre for Social Innovation, WorkVentures and chairperson of Warakirri College - a school for disengaged young people in Western Sydney.
This story How Squid Game captured our attention first appeared on The Canberra Times.