The Age

The good times fail to reach country Victoria

By BOB BIRRELL
The Age
Thursday 16 December 1999

The view from Melbourne looks good. Melbourne has experienced sustained economic growth through the second half of the 1990s. There is even a whiff of the late 1980s about again, with property prices escalating along with a housing boom, which by 1997-98 saw more new housing approvals than at any time since the late '80s.

In the three years since 1996, nearly 100,000 net new jobs were created in Melbourne. Most were "good" jobs in the property and business services area. Melbourne's population is growing at about 50,000 a year, twice the level of the early 1990s. Almost all the increased number of overseas migrants coming to Victoria are settling in Melbourne, and Melbourne is no longer experiencing net losses of people to interstate or regional Victorian destinations. This population growth is fuelling the housing and property price boom, which in turn promotes consumer confidence and so on in a self-reinforcing cycle.

None of these things are happening in regional Victoria. There has been almost no net growth in jobs over the past three years and no increase in population. Regional Victoria is not even keeping its growth from natural increase, due to losses of residents interstate and probably to Melbourne. Most of these losses are of young people and the better-qualified adults. Regional Victoria's share of the state's new housing approvals fell to just 22.5 per cent in 1997-98 (compared with its 28 per cent of Victoria's population), the lowest level for the past decade.

The economic situation behind these developments is clear. Manufacturing employment in regional Victoria is declining and the agricultural sector is under continuing pressure to increase productivity in order to compete internationally. This has been achieved, but at the expense of fewer jobs.

The positive spin-offs from this achievement mainly benefit people in Melbourne. In particular, the consumer boom driving Melbourne's economy is underpinned in part by commodity exports. Meanwhile, in the bush, the rural producers who survive are increasingly surrounded by people on the fringe of the productive system.

The sudden willingness of politicians to address regional problems is welcome. However, it is not clear that they appreciate the depth of the crisis.

Our studies of regional Victoria have focused on the hard edge of disadvantage, which is concentrated among families with dependent children where no parent is employed. We estimated that by last year 21per cent of all families with children aged up to 15 living in regional Victoria were without a breadwinner and 16 per cent were headed by a sole parent. In Melbourne, 18 per cent of families with such children were without a breadwinner and 12per cent were headed by a sole parent.

The situation is serious in the city and country. But why so severe in regional Victoria? Most might expect the reverse outcome, given that the majority of families without breadwinners are headed by a sole parent. The prevailing image is that regional people put a higher store on family and are less subject to the individualising pressures of the big city.

The regional problem almost certainly derives from the economic situation. Studies of partnership creation and breakdown show that the higher the income and occupational status of men, the more likely they are to be partnered and, if married, to avoid marriage breakdown. Men without a regular and solid income do not have much to offer a woman who takes on child-rearing and home duties or who wants a sharing of job and family tasks.

Men in regional Victoria may also be struggling to come to grips with the changed expectations of a better-educated group of country women. Such tensions will be accentuated in relationships where men face income insecurity. There is no doubt this is often the case in regional Victoria. Male employment levels and incomes are well below those of their metropolitan counterparts, including those employed in the same occupations.

Families without breadwinners are concentrating in Victoria regional centres and towns. In Ballarat, Bendigo, Wodonga, Shepparton and Morwell, one in four families with a dependent child was without a breadwinner in 1998. Most were headed by sole parents. Nearly one in five of all families with dependents in these centres was headed by a sole parent who was not a breadwinner (whose income would have derived primarily from the sole-parent pension). The figures were similar for the smaller regional centres.

These concentrations are mainly "home-grown". However, there is also a movement of disadvantaged families into regional centres from elsewhere in rural Victoria and from Melbourne. The main attraction is cheap housing, including public housing.

There is no Band-Aid solution. Many families are isolated in locations with low housing costs but few jobs.

The most serious long-term issue is the fate of the children. If they are to compete in the labor market, they need skills. How are they going to attain these skills if they grow up in settings where educational resources are stretched thin and where their parents (or parent) have little financial capacity to invest in their future?

Bob Birrell is director of Monash University's Centre for Population and Urban Research. He, Jacqui Dibden and Jo Wainer yesterday released the report Regional Victoria: Why the Bush is Hurting. E-mail: Bob.Birrell@arts.monash.edu.au

Copyright (c) David Syme & Co 1999.