Nearly six in 10 severely disadvantaged Australians had significantly improved their lives over a decade-long period, a new longitudinal study has found.
The University of Canberra study tracked 866 marginalised Australian adults over the decade to 2010, using data from the federal government's Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey and funding from the ACT Government.
The Marginalisation in Australia: Characteristics and Predictors of Exit Over 10 Years 2001-2010 report found nearly 60 per cent of the people studied had managed to get out of marginalised circumstances after a decade. While they had not, on average, entered mainstream Australian life they had seen significant improvements to the majority of aspects of their lives.
The report classified marginalisation as the state of individuals living on the fringes of society who had a complex mix of problems, including economic, social and early life disadvantage and poor health.
Marginalised people came from stigmatised groups, including Aboriginal people and single, welfare dependent mothers, they were living on the fringes of society and had severely limited access to the opportunities and resources they needed to live a decent life.
Receiving welfare payments at the start of the 10-year period and getting a full-time job were two of the best predictors of an escape from deep disadvantage, the report found. Entering a relationship or getting a university degree were also commonly identified factors among people who experienced improved circumstances after a 10-year period, but getting part-time work did not factor in exiting marginalisation and getting a certificate or diploma qualification actually reduced the likelihood of leaving a marginalised state.
According to the report, in 2001 13 per cent of Australian adults were living in marginalised circumstances. Helen Berry, associate dean of research at the University of Canberra's Faculty of Health and chief investigator of the study, said welfare payments, including unemployment and student support, meant marginalised people did not slip into the worst levels of desperate poverty.
She said welfare payments provided a safety net and the security of a regular income, even if it was a low amount. "It's a symbol of being cared about, so society cares enough to give you something, even if it's not very much, it cares enough that you don't starve or die on the streets," she said.
Professor Berry said the study showed that supporting people when they needed it through welfare payments, even if that meant providing payments for 10 years, was the right thing to do. But she said people receiving payments associated with long-term health did not see the same changes in circumstance, nor did those on no income support at all. She said the new National Disability Insurance Scheme may be useful in addressing entrenched disadvantage.
The risk of being persistently marginalised was 12 times greater for indigenous Australians compared with the rest of the population, the study found. It also found women who had no further children after 2001 were much more likely to exit marginalisation.