Stuck in a down town
Author: Adele Horin
Date: 26/02/2007
Words: 1525
Source: SMH

New research shows Kempsey to be severely disadvantaged and the hard-life stories bear that out, writes Adele Horin.

EMMA CARTWRIGHT is not sure what she wants to do when she leaves school. "Medicine," she says, "or maybe hairdressing." Right now she is 16 and pregnant, and living in Kempsey. It is a pretty town, set on the Macleay River, good for fishing and swimming, and a short drive to booming Port Macquarie. But new research has identified the Kempsey postcode as one of the six most disadvantaged in NSW.

Jessica Rogers is also 16 and pregnant to a man in his 30s, just out of jail, who already has two children. She is doing the equivalent of her HSC at TAFE. "Maybe I'll do nursing," she says, "or be a youth worker." She is bright enough.

Young people in Kempsey have dreams. But they - and their children - will need a lucky break, or new resolve from state and federal governments, to escape the cycle of deprivation that has locked them out of Australia's good times.

A report to be released this week, Dropping off the edge, by Professor Tony Vinson, emeritus professor of social work at the University of NSW, identifies the state's 40 most disadvantaged postcodes. It tells, the "mundane but enduring story" of how limited education, low family income, poor health, disabilities, and engagement in crime, are concentrated in a relatively few geographic areas and combine to create a culture of disadvantage. It is a culture that seems impervious to the macro-economic policies that have brought rising prosperity to most Australians.

"In the absence of a generous inheritance, to get ahead in our society you need health, basic skills, and good role models," Vinson said. "These are precisely the characteristics in short supply in highly disadvantaged areas."

State and federal governments have failed to stay the course in poor areas, he says. There are no long-term sustained programs to tackle inter-generational disadvantage, a task that cannot be achieved in two or three years.

Kempsey, for example, has seen quite a lot of government money and programs. It has been "consulted to death" on its problems, a NSW Health department document says. In 2004 there was the Kempsey Shire Social Plan, and in 2006, the Kempsey Mapping Project Report by the North Coast Area Health Service. But most programs are funded for two or three years, like Kempsey's award-winning suicide prevention program, and its innovative House of Youth centre. The funding runs out, or is shifted to another poor area, the program folds, and the community can be left worse off, as Vinson's study of the cycle in other areas shows.

"The let-down occasioned by the premature withdrawal of help can leave people feeling more hopeless than before the process began," he says.

At Macleay Vocational College, a community school in South Kempsey that caters to students rejected by high school, a cluster of students was learning how to build a retaining wall.

Damien Wilson, 16, tells a typical story: expelled from high school at 13 because of his behaviour, he traces his problems to "family reasons". There was trouble with his mother's ex-boyfriend, and he and his three siblings decamped several years ago to live with his aunt and her five children. "We get treated exactly the same as her kids," he says. "My aunty helped as much as she could but I just couldn't keep up with the school work." Emma, whose baby is due in April, lives with her mother and is one of five children. Lindsay Felton, 17, the eldest of eight children, said neither his father nor stepfather currently had jobs.

They all had high hopes the college would help them get the education they needed to build a good life. Elleisha Donohue 17, one of four children to parents who are unemployed, said she wanted to be a lawyer - and she has the brains, according to the principal, Jann Eason, to achieve her goal.

But it won't be easy. Kempsey has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the state - 11.1 per cent compared with a state average of 4 per cent. And it has a litany of other severe social problems, outlined in the NSW Health document: rising rates of generational welfare families, school suspensions, and abuse and physical neglect of children. Its health statistics are shocking compared with the state average, with almost double the rate of avoidable deaths due to chronic conditions. It also has a lack of affordable housing, third- and fourth-generational unemployment and falling job opportunities. The unemployment rate in the Oxley electorate, in which Kempsey is situated, is 15.8 per cent, the highest in the state. It has a big Aboriginal population but the problems of Kempsey transcend the colour divide.

"People say 'Kempsey equals Aboriginal disadvantage.' But 'Kempsey equals disadvantage,"' says a youth worker, Jo Dennington. "Too often it is a case of children raised in poverty giving birth to more children to be raised in poverty. It's not about the $5000 baby bonus. In one case, a girl told me she got pregnant because her friend did. In another case, the girl was prostituted by her family at the age of 11. She's got a big chip on her shoulder, and deservedly so." Kempsey's Aboriginal population, however, faces further barriers to breaking out of a cycle of hopelessness. "There's a tradition of not employing Aboriginal people in the town," a community worker said. "I guess you could call it 'tradition' or 'racism'." But a giant Coles supermarket is coming to town, and Mavis Symonds, who runs the community house in West Kempsey, located in a Housing Department area, has plans to ensure indigenous young people get a share of the jobs this time. She has contacted Coles state management about her ideas. "We want to get young people feeling comfortable working for a mainstream organisation," she says. "We want to give them the confidence to apply for a position."

So the Job Ready - Let's Go course will start soon to give 20 young people the basic skills in retail that might get them to first base. Symonds hopes it will be as successful as the program to encourage Kempsey's real estate agents to rent properties to indigenous families. "We built a rapport with the agents," she said, "and then we worked with the families about rights and responsibilities." Now about 50 indigenous families have been able to rent privately in Kempsey. Over at the Booroongen Djugun Aboriginal Corporation, there's understandable cynicism. Gary Morris and Val March run the huge enterprise. which provides 60 aged-care beds, as well as on-site and distance post-school vocational courses to mainly indigenous people. It employs about 90 people and pours $5.5 million a year into the local economy. "Some people will take a Koori on," says Morris, "until the grant runs out."

There is no shortage of transitory programs and grants. Yet Kempsey appears to have gone backwards. In 2003, when Vinson undertook a similar exercise, Kempsey was 15th on the list of disadvantaged postcodes, and in 1999, on the basis of much more limited data, it was 52nd. Graham Davis, 41, a student at Booroongen Djugun, in the land conservation course, has seen the decline in his own lifetime. His father was a foreman of council road workers in the 1970s, "allowed even to drive the truck home". But he died in 1976, when Graham was 10. His mother took him to Taree but it did not work out and he dropped out of school at 15. His only work has been on government-subsidised programs such as the Community Development Employment Project. "I blame myself for dropping out of school," he says. "But when it comes to work, because you're coloured they think you're dumb."

The NSW Government has made stabs at tackling problems in disadvantaged communities. There was the "Strengthening Local Communities" strategy in 1999, then in 2002 the "Community Solutions Crime Prevention" program. Each was of a short duration. The latest manifestation is the Department of Housing's $66 million "Community Regeneration" strategy for 18 housing estates. Gary Moore, the project director of the first strategy, said: "Compared to the Blair Government which took a long-term view of urban regeneration, the NSW Government when it first started was more interested in politically managing issues such as crime levels and drugs rather than community development." However, he believes the Government has learnt from its mistakes and in places such as Redfern-Waterloo, has a long-term commitment to renewal. As well its Families First initiative, an early-intervention program, begun in 1999, shows a similar commitment to the long term.

Back in Kempsey, Hugh Rutherford, the principal of Kempsey South Public School, was paying some home visits. There was a mother he wanted to see about her two children, one with a mild intellectual disability. But the mother was in hospital, giving birth. His is a disadvantaged school by any measure. But a five-year program that starts before children come to school and includes Reading Recovery classes for every child, is paying dividends.

In the past two years, for the first time, the school has performed at the state average in the basic skills tests for numeracy and literacy. "Instead of hiding the results under the desk, we celebrated," Rutherford said. "It's taken a long time."