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One in five Australian children under the age of five live in poverty, a new report on early childhood has revealed.

The Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre report uncovers concerning trends within two Australian states, with the proportion of young children below the relative poverty line increasing by 4.9% in Queensland and 2% in Western Australia between 2009 and 2018. 

Nationally, the rate of children under five in poverty increased by 1.4% between 2013 and 2018, but fell 0.5% from 2009. 

The impact of poverty on children, particularly in regards to early education outcomes, is heavily analysed in the report. 

Children in the most disadvantaged communities are far less likely to attend the required 15 hours of preschool each week and are much more likely to have developmental delays.

One in two children living in poverty are “developmentally vulnerable” in at least two areas — including mental health and language development — against the national average of 11.4%

Report co-author Rebecca Cassells said the findings highlight the failings of Australia’s early education access program.

The program, which received a $452.3 million funding boost in April, aims to ensure every child can participate in a quality preschool program that “builds success for life,” regardless of family income, for 600 hours in the year before primary school. 

"Access to early learning opportunities are providing positive outcomes for thousands of young children in Australia. Yet children facing greater disadvantage are the very ones missing out on the support that was ostensibly meant for them,” she said. “Children living in the most disadvantaged areas are 10 times more likely not to be accessing 15 hours of preschool each week in the year before school compared to children in the most advantaged areas.”

If children in disadvantaged areas do attend preschool, they often encounter higher student to teacher ratios.

The report says much is needed to break the cycle of poverty. 

According to report co-author and Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre Senior Research Fellow Daniel Kiely, disadvantage begins in pregnancy and extends through toddler and preschool years.

As a result, early intervention for mothers at the start of pregnancy is vital.

To break the cycle, Kiely says federal, state and territory governments need to ensure income support payments and government assistance are increased and set at a rate that protects the most vulnerable. 

A separate report found over 50% of families receiving the Parenting Payment income support live in poverty.

The rate increases to 55% for those on JobSeeker payments, formally known as Newstart. 

"Greater support is needed to make sure all children and their families, especially those living in disadvantaged and remote communities, have full access to services that will support families with very young children,” he said.

The growth in child poverty is linked to higher housing and childcare costs. 


Defeat Poverty

1 in 5 Australians Under 5 Years of Age Live in Poverty: Report

By Madeleine Keck