Janet Liu: To start with, what does The Smith Family do?
Lisa O’Brien: The Smith Family helps Australian children in need to break the cycle of poverty by supporting them to succeed at school. A good education provides a foundation that empowers all young people to create a better future for themselves.
JL: What was the scale of poverty in Australia before COVID-19?
LO: Before COVID-19, 1.2 million young Australians – one in six – were already living in poverty. That rate has remained relatively unchanged in recent years.
The potential long-term consequences for children growing up in poverty are well known: poorer health, educational and employment outcomes, poorer wellbeing, and increased reliance on welfare and other services.
These children are more likely to start school behind in areas critical for educational success. At age 15, they’re likely to be three years behind their more affluent peers. Post-school, they’re less likely to be in work or further study.
Having limited financial resources affects Australian families in so many ways, including being able to afford the essentials their children need to keep up and succeed at school, such as books, stationery and digital technology.
JL: How has COVID-19 further impacted children living in poverty?
LO: The longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on poverty in Australia are unknown at this stage but many fear its effects will be deep and long-lasting. There's no doubt it has impacted the learning of thousands of children The Smith Family supports across the country.
In an unprecedented national response, governments, schools, the business sector and non-government organisations are working to limit the pandemic’s impact on the education of vulnerable children. A number of these efforts have focused on providing access to digital technology and resources to support online learning at home. Yet even this very welcome support may not be enough to address the potential increase in the education ‘gap’ for these children.
Children living in poverty face many complex, often compounding, issues. Four in five children and young people The Smith Family supports on our long-term educational program, Learning for Life, live in a family where someone has a major health or disability issue. They live in families who often struggle to afford the basics, like gas and electricity. Their circumstances increase their level of risk relating to COVID-19 and they have little left for other expenses like education as they are already under strain.
Thousands of Australian families have been struggling to support their child’s learning at home but for parents living in poverty, it is particularly hard. Their homes have more limited space; they may feel less confident about their capacity to help with their children’s learning; they have few if any savings to pay for unexpected costs such as a desk; and they have more limited networks of support to draw on.
All of these factors compound and make children living in poverty at even greater risk educationally because of COVID-19.
But it is also important to note the families we’ve spoken to are showing remarkable determination, resilience and resourcefulness in navigating this crisis. Their general approach is ‘keep going and keep strong’. It’s truly inspiring given the circumstances they face.
JL: What is The Smith Family doing to address these challenges?
LO: Our key priority is to continue supporting the 55,000 young Australians in need who are already sponsored on our Learning for Life program.
The $500,000 donation from ANZ is helping support these children to ensure they do not fall further behind in their learning during the pandemic. It’s also contributing to a range of activities we are undertaking to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, including:
· Our Learning for Life Coordinators are working closely with students and families to understand and respond to their needs during the crisis. These needs range from guidance in navigating changes in their regular support structures through to assistance with accessing online school resources.
· We have quickly developed a number of new and specific resources our team can use to support our students and their families. These include a guide to assist in troubleshooting common issues with online schooling and webinars and upskilling families in digital literacy.
· We are pivoting the delivery of some of our additional, targeted learning programs to enable more online support at home. In particular, we are accelerating the digitisation of programs that are well suited to remote learning while expanding the delivery of our existing online learning and mentoring programs. For example, a virtual version of a careers support program has already been successfully piloted with students. We’ve also adapted Saver Plus, a matched savings and financial education program delivered in partnership with ANZ, to digital delivery so thousands of participants can continue building financial skills during this time.
· The students and families we support need more interaction with us than usual to manage the challenges and pressures caused by the pandemic. To enable our teams to communicate quickly and effectively, we are extending the functionality and capacity of our online portal.
JL: What is the Charities Crisis Cabinet and how is The Smith Family playing a role?
LO: The Smith Family is a member of the Charities Crisis Cabinet with representatives from across the charity sector. It was formed to discuss how to tackle the current challenges caused by COVID-19.
We were also invited to join the Charities, Philanthropy and Fundraising Advisory Sub-committee, which is providing advice to the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission. The role of the Commission is to advise the Federal Government on how to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of this global pandemic and to facilitate the fastest possible recovery.
JL: How can others help?
LO: For almost 100 years, with the help of our supporters, The Smith Family has helped Australian children and families during some of our darkest days as a nation – through the great depression and wars, natural disasters and poverty. We have withstood them all and will do so again.
We also have decades of on-the-ground experience working with families experiencing disadvantage, so we are uniquely positioned to assess what families need and provide support.
We are incredibly grateful for all our supporters, including major partners like ANZ, who enable us to continue helping children in need, not just through this challenging time but into the future as well.
The educational support we provide the young Australians on our Learning for Life program is more vital than ever as they are at higher risk of falling behind. Our evidence-based approach is helping these children build their life skills, grow their confidence and develop the social and professional connections they need to complete their schooling and realise their potential.
For more information, visit www.thesmithfamily.com.au