Paving the way to improved child wellbeing

  • Paving the way to improved child wellbeing image
    Early experiences of child social exclusion can carry significant and life-long social, emotional, and financial costs

In Australia today, one in six children live in poverty. But many more children face disadvantage on multiple fronts.

These early experiences of social exclusion, spanning from  lack of access to health services, vulnerability in early childhood development, as well as limited connection to community and supports, can carry significant and life-long social, emotional and financial costs.

Recently, in collaboration with the UnitingCare network and the University of Canberra, we launched the third Child Social Exclusion Index Report (CSE), shedding light on the experiences of some 880,000 children under the age of 15 experiencing social exclusion across Australia.

► Download a snapshot of the Report here

Understanding child social exclusion

Child social exclusion extends the concept of child poverty to measure social and material disadvantage in which children lack the opportunities and resources to participate fully in their communities and feel connected. To be socially included, Australian children must be able to have working parents, have social support through family and friends, and access to high-quality basic services like health and education.

The Index encompasses a wide range of factors that may deprive children of equal opportunities to participate fully in society, including education, connectedness, access to housing, health and environment, giving us a more complete picture of the barriers to wellbeing.

► Download the full Child Social Exclusion Report Index here

From social inclusion to wellbeing

Australia’s policy discourse has evolved from social exclusion to wellbeing, with the Government recently publishing a ‘Measuring What Matters‘ National Wellbeing Framework that aims to track Australia’s progress towards a healthier, secure, sustainable, cohesive and prosperous country. While this framework does not focus on children specifically, several themes are vital for child wellbeing.

Why measure child wellbeing?

Early experiences of exclusion can perpetuate life-long cycles of disadvantage – which is why we need to take a close look at how to give our kids the best chance to thrive.

Trends and patterns

The CSE Index is an area-based indicator of the risk of social exclusion for Australian children. The index uses a wider concept of disadvantage than one focussed purely on income at the Statistical Area 2 (SA2) small area level. This report updates the index of social exclusion risk for Australian children under 15 years of age based on data from the 2021 Census supplemented by additional administrative and microsimulated data. Six domains were used: socio-economic, education, connectedness, access to housing, health & community, and environment. Importantly, the report also compares the patterns and distribution of the CSE Index findings across time—referencing the first and second version of the Report in 2016 and 2021 respectively—and against the spatial distribution of child poverty in 2021.

Social exclusion is worst in the bush

The Index identifies those areas in Australia where these many forms of disadvantage interact to create high levels of child social exclusion and therefore where services and supports need to be targeted.

The report highlights that a significant number of parliamentary electorates have communities falling into the bottom fifth of social exclusion or child poverty. This underscores the importance of political will and leadership in driving meaningful change at the policy level.

Almost half (48%) of children living in regional areas experience social exclusion, emphasising the urgent need for targeted support in rural and remote communities. Furthermore, 35% of children in Tasmania are acutely excluded, followed by South Australia and Queensland.

Local community risk of exclusion can persist over time

The risk of child social exclusion is persistent, with 16% of children remaining in the highest risk category of social exclusion since the publication of the previous CSE Index in 2018.

Low income isn’t the only cause

Low income contributes significantly to exclusion but isn’t the only causal factor. The comparison between the CSE Index and child poverty reveals that there are some locations where poverty is high, but the risk of child social exclusion is low, and conversely, locations of low poverty and high social exclusion. This indicates that a range of factors contribute to diminished child wellbeing.

Changing trends over time

While some indicators show improvement between 2016 and 2021, such as a decline in housing stress, other areas present concerning trends. Declines in the ratio of healthcare providers such as GPs and dentists and volunteering rates, exacerbated by COVID-19 lockdowns, pose significant challenges. It’s crucial to address these systemic issues to ensure the well-being of vulnerable children and families.

Addressing child social exclusion

To address child social exclusion effectively, a coordinated and holistic approach to policy design is needed across sectors.

As the largest community services network nationally, the UnitingCare network is deeply committed to doing everything we can to tackle disadvantage.

Early intervention and place-based initiatives are crucial strategies for addressing entrenched disadvantage, ensuring that no child is left behind. We call for the development of a National Child Wellbeing Plan as part of the Government’s broader National Wellbeing Framework to prioritise the needs of Australia’s most vulnerable children.

Moreover, improving the evidence base is critical in improving child wellbeing. Factors such as a child’s subjective experiences at school, quality of life, safety with the absence of harm and fear, food security, or participation in social activities including sport can be addressed to ensure all children can participate equally and be socially connected in their local communities.