From Claymore to Cape York the poverty endures

Opinion Article

2012 September, 29

The ABC's Four Corners program this week on the southwestern Sydney housing commission suburb of Claymore, a humanitarian disaster 36 years in the making, showed that welfare ghettos are not restricted to indigenous Australia. 


Through the tender eyes of the children of this broken white community, reporter Sarah Ferguson did what journalism does best: shine a light into the country's neglected corners, to show us truths from which we would avert our eyes. 


Host Kerry O'Brien laid out some statistics: 2.2 million Australians live below the poverty line. More than 600,000 children under 15 live in households where no one has a job. He went on: "So what do we draw from that? I guess that in one of the wealthiest countries on the face of the earth, with an economy that's largely flying high and unemployment quite low, we still can't crack Australia's significant cycle of poverty." O'Brien's point is a cliche, but being so doesn't make it untrue. What is to be done about places such as Claymore? 


From the chopper hovering above the estate, through the long-range lens surveying its verdant parks, Claymore looks disarmingly promising. It must have looked splendid when an entire community jumped off the drawing boards of its erstwhile planners and entered the real world. The same as the new housing being built in indigenous communities across the country. Housing estates are deceptive when new. You can picture the ministers and public servants swarming proudly over the suburb back in 1976, patting themselves on the back for their commitment to social justice. But dormant in this estate lay the seeds of the ghetto that Claymore would become. 


For me the similarity between Claymore and Cape York communities I know well is striking. You need not change many details other than the colour of their skin. The ravages of alcohol, drugs and domestic violence. The family breakdown, teenage pregnancy, high birthrates, half the children growing up in single-parent households. The children looked after by heroic aunts and relatives, their mothers crippled by drugs and mental illness, and fathers long gone. 


The children of my hometown living similarly chaotic lives have many good things compared with the Claymore mob. They have a culture and a glorious land in which they still live, hunt and fish. Their city housing estate peers seem not to have much that is rich in their lives. 


There is at least public attention to the plight of the country's indigenous ghettos, whereas places such as Claymore are out of mind. Ferguson reported the NSW Labor government resolved with its federal counterpart to bulldoze Claymore and start again - apparently as easy as pressing the erase button on the social planners' electronic whiteboards. After demolishing 90 houses the policy has been on hold because the O'Farrell government says there is no budget to complete the plan. 


I have spent some time in parlous communities, but I cannot imagine what it must be like to live in a place condemned to bulldozing because governments determined there was no better option. How long Claymore will live on death row is unknown. 


What is to be done for the children of places such as this? 


We must first understand what we are dealing with. Four Corners assumes we are dealing with poverty. I would say we are not just dealing with poverty but something we have been talking about for a decade: passivity. In this respect indigenous policy discussion is ahead of the mainstream. 


True, it is about growing up poor, but it is more than that. Poverty and passivity are distinct conditions. Every Australian family with working-class origins that ascended into the middle class during the past century endured poverty. Through the generations and with opportunity they rose up into the world of advantage. 


What the families of Claymore are enduring is more profound than poverty. They are the victims of a welfare state that has harnessed a vast passive clientele, and in the process crippled their chances of converting opportunity into social progress. This is what happened to black Australians across the same period. 


The last time governments sought to do something, they wrongly framed the problem as one of poverty alone. If the next effort frames it the same way, we will repeat the failures.


This leads me to my second point: the way forward must not be left to the planners in the social housing departments of government. It is their bankrupt thinking that created these disasters, and they will not change. Their purpose is to keep the poor under harness, forever dependent on what they call service delivery. 


Australia must be transformed from a welfare state to an opportunity society. An opportunity society is similar to the classical welfare state in that governments have the responsibility to ensure there is opportunity for all. 


However, the opportunity society is one in which citizens are expected to exercise personal responsibility for turning opportunity into uplift for themselves and their children. 


This means fundamental welfare reforms. 


As a consequence of fiscal contractions across the world, Australian governments have been cutting expenditure on once handsomely funded programs. It is in this fraught context that a debate about the role and scope of government has arisen, in the US and in our own country. 


We need to better define what government should do to support citizens out of dysfunction and disadvantage. We cannot continue to write off whole communities such as Claymore from ever joining in the opportunities of our country, and using them as fodder for the service delivery industries of the welfare state. 


American welfare reform thinker Lawrence Mead counselled there were two urgent priorities for children in troubled communities: first, they must see an adult in their family working; second, they must be sheltered from violence. 


Two Claymore residents confirmed the importance of this. The heroic aunt, Christine, who worked at an aged-care home, told Ferguson: "As long as I can enforce that they have to work, they need to work, then I think I've done a good job." 


Asked by Ferguson whether work was important, she said: "Definitely. It gives them structure and they want to strive, to maybe save for a holiday, save for a house." 


The second came from a father, Brett, whose children witnessed him beating his wife. He said: "Anyone that sits there and says 'Oh my kids are tough, they can handle this', you're a fool, you're kidding yourself, it's not the case. They might not let on that it's bothering them but deep inside it's bothering them, and always will, every child.


"It takes five seconds to give yourself the shits and then belt someone, but it takes years and years to fix the problem."


The children of places such as Claymore and Cape York have been in jobless households for generations now, and they have witnessed and been the victims of too much violence. The conditions for the repetition of the cycle are all there. It is these conditions that must be disrupted by welfare reforms.

From Claymore to Cape York the poverty endures