Often young people start with petty crime then move onto more serious offences. The justice system may provide first time offenders with rehabilitation but when they are released into the community there is no support and no prospect of employment. St Vincent de Paul commented in these cases young people cannot cope with being out in the community again with no hope of getting any sort of job. Passages Resource Centre in Perth provided the Committee with this disturbing evidence about two brothers who sought their assistance:
They are both physically underdeveloped, due to inadequate food and poor nutrition in early childhood, and the eldest is experiencing ongoing dental problems as a result of this. They are both uneducated. School has been a terrible experience for both the boys as the family was unable to provide adequate clothing and resources such as textbooks, pens, paper, uniforms, those sorts of things, which has isolated them from their peers in the school environment.
Both the boys left school before the age of 13 and both of them now struggle with their levels of numeracy and literacy.
Both the boys were living on the streets by their 13th birthday, with no social or material support. The eldest lived on the streets, sleeping in car parks and abandoned buildings for nearly a year, with no income whatsoever. At times he was forced to steal and was involved in sex work also. His involvement in the sex industry has adversely affected his capacity to form meaningful and trusting relationships. His involvement in crime is going to have a dramatic impact upon his future, due to his criminal record, and he has unpaid train fines totalling around $15,000.
When the boys were finally granted Centrelink payments there were occasions where the parents actually misappropriated those funds. In spite of the years we have worked with them and the efforts to get them secure in long-term stable accommodation, we just have not been able to do so. This example is not something that is unusual within the centre. It is something that goes on all the time. It is just a single example of what we have to deal with every day.
Committee Hansard 28.7.03, Passages Resource Centre (Page 273).
Other witnesses also emphasised the link between poverty and youth crime:
There is a strong link between poverty and crime. During our research into young women’s legal needs, we discovered that 100 per cent of young women charged with serious offences indicated that they had no income. Forty per cent of young women charged with lesser offences indicated that they had no income. Young people who are poor are very vulnerable to homelessness and criminal activity (Page 273).
The costs of criminal activity are high not only in personal terms for the young person entering the justice system but also in economic terms:
We are determined to ensure that the young people we support keep out of the prison system. We know that prisons are popular; they are growing so rapidly, it is hard to keep up with it. But youth workers are a much more cost-effective way of supporting young people than prisons. It costs $60,000 a year to keep a person in prison, so if you put those 50 young people in prison, it would cost $3 million a year rather than the $200,000 that we spend, and we think it is very cost-effective (Page 274).
The already severe accommodation problems faced by students are even more difficult for Austudy recipients as they do not receive Rent Assistance. Shelter NSW provided the following case study as an example:
Wendy is 30. She has worked in retail and hospitality for many years. Her parents are elderly pensioners. In 2002, Wendy enrolled in a full-time graphic design course at Enmore TAFE. She applied for Austudy and scaled down her hours to 6 hours retail work on a Saturday, which paid $100 a week. This meant her weekly income was about $248 a week. Wendy was renting a room in a share house within walking distance of the TAFE. Her rent was $130 a week. After paying her rent, utilities, plus buying materials for the course, Wendy estimates that some weeks she may only have $20 left for food. Wendy was doing two hours of homework a night and working Saturdays. After 6 weeks she found it too stressful to juggle the demands of the course, and pay for rent, food, and also keep working on the weekends. She dropped out. Wendy went off Austudy and returned to working in retail at a different art supplies shop and is now employed as a casual.
Wendy had this to say:
“Austudy should definitely have Rent Assistance – if the dole has it, then Austudy should have it too. As a person trying to better myself – because I don’t want to work as a casual in retail for the rest of my life, where I live from week to week, and the only way of doing that is educating myself and getting the qualifications. I find it hard to because Austudy is less than the dole. You also have more expenses when you are studying. The dole is more than Austudy!” (Page 295).
Indebtedness is also increased through HECS fees.
Anyone who gets a clear run through life and comes out can earn at least 40 grand and at that rate your average degree will take 12 years to pay off anyway. Women who have children, someone who can only study part time, someone who has a disability or someone who has had a car accident and does not get going for a few years will never get a chance to pay it off (Page 296).
A young woman I spoke to just two days ago needs to do extra work to increase her career opportunities. She is paying $140 a fortnight to just do those extra modules, yet we understand that the federal government, at the higher education end, will give discretion to universities to charge another 25 per cent on the basis of HECS when we already have something that is unaffordable and working-class people are dropping out. We are then relying on those who can afford to pay and giving them a lower entry level point if they have the dollars to get in to university – ACTU (Page 298).
Reference: Senate Community Affairs References Committee Secretariat, E. Humphery, C. McDonald, P. Short, L. Peake, and I. Zappe. (2004). A hand up not a hand out: Renewing the fight against poverty, Report on poverty and financial hardship. The Senate Community Affairs References Committee Secretariat, Senate Printing Unit, Parliament House, Canberra. Pages 273 – 298.