Charities need support now more than ever - Transcript, Volunteer Voices





SUBJECTS: Reconnected, the impact of coronavirus on charities.

MICHAEL LESTER, HOST: Welcome to Radio Northern Beaches, 88.7 and 90.3. I'm Michael Lester with our weekly Volunteer Voices show here on Radio Northern Beaches. And I'm delighted to welcome to our program today Andrew Leigh, who is the Member of Parliament for the ACT seat of Fenner and he has been a member of parliament since 2010. Andrew is an academic, a former professor of economics at ANU, a great author and commentator on social and policy issues. Andrew, I'm very pleased to welcome you here to Volunteer Voices.


LESTER: Now this is a difficult time Andrew, but in many ways I think an interesting time to talk to you as we as a society face the challenges to our social interconnectedness if you like, as a community, when we confront a lot of the social distancing, self isolation and other very drastic measures that are being undertaken. Perhaps as a bit of a background to that discussion Andrew, perhaps you could take us through the work you did in 2010 when you actually looked at some of the statistics and facts around social participation, volunteering and engagement in Australia against the backdrop of the figures from America that were showing significant declines in community participation and organisations in the last 20 years.

LEIGH: Thanks very much, Michael. When I was a doctoral student at Harvard in the early 2000s, I worked with Robert Putnam on his research team. Putnam had just produced Bowling Alone, which was a magnificent study looking at the contours of social capital in America - how the networks of trust and reciprocity in that country had first waxed and then waned over the course of the 20th century. He documented that for the first half of the 20th century, there was quite a significant increase in the strength of community and associational life, and then from the 1960s, 1970s onwards that there had been a decline. In Disconnected, I looked at the same patterns for Australia and found much the same trends. Churchgoing, union membership, member of the Scouts, Guides, Rotary, Lions - all of that seemed to have declined since the 1970s. Australians tend to have fewer organisations per person and a smaller share of the population actively engaged in civic organisation.

LESTER: Right. So what is actually the underlying concept here that is analysed in economic and social terms of social capital? What does that mean, and what are the elements of social capital that make for a connected community?

LEIGH: Physical capital is the idea that buildings and bridges have inherent value. Human capital of the idea that our skills and knowledge have some inherent value. Social capital is the idea that our networks have an inherent value - that the bridges of trust that connect neighbours or business partners are important. And that we see that economically. We see the communities that are more connected tend to grow faster, and the trust helps to make capitalism work effectively. One of things I worry about in the context of the current coronavirus crisis Michael, is that we might be seeing the breakdown of a whole lot of those relationships which might prove quite difficult to rebuild. It's one of the reasons governments around the world are stepping in to sustain economic activity, because they realise social capital could be destroyed much faster than physical or human capital in this crisis.

LESTER: And yes and clearly we do need to rely on social capital. We've just come to that, but just by way of background too - this work back to 2000 by Putnam out of Harvard and then your work subsequently in Australia, what are the key factors that have been suggested as explaining why there has been this decline in civic engagement and levels of trust in our organisations and in our community over the past 20 years?

LEIGH: Part of it is technological. We're more likely to watch television, to commute on our own in a car rather than to use public transport, to be engaged in computer gaming or glued to our smartphones. Part of it is also the changes in society. So rampant gender pay discrimination against women in the 1950s meant that many community organisations were run by women who'd effectively been shunned by the formal labour market. It was good that we saw the reduction in some of those gender pay gap, but one of the consequences was that community organisations then struggled to stay afloat. And we've also seen increases in the number of people working long and unsociable hours, hours that make it more difficult to take your kids along to a weekend soccer game or go along to a weeknight meeting at the local Rotary club. So it's been a confluence of these factors. It's not about turning the clock back. We need to figure out new and creative ways of building community in a more technologically advanced and socially aware age.

LESTER: How important or otherwise are generational shifts and particularly age groups? For example, we're seeing reports out of various places about the way millennials are reacting to the current situation requiring them to behave in a social manner, and in fact perhaps they don't see their responsibilities as a group as clearly as perhaps others. Is age and generational shift an important factor in explaining this drop off in social and community activity?

LEIGH: It sure is. So take churchgoing for example, most of the decline in churchgoing isn't that people over the course of their lives have become less likely to attend church. It's that the Baby Boomers are less likely than the Greatest Generation to attend, Gen X less likely and the Baby Boomers, Gen Y are less likely than Gen X. And that's true as you look at other community organizations as well. So we are seeing a shift from one generation to the next, which means again that we need to think about how to engage millennials and make sure that these fabulous supercomputers we carry in our pockets are used to build connections rather than break them.

LESTER: And what about the question of education, and education levels in society? Is there some evidence to suggest that differential levels of education reflect different perceptions and commitments to social engagement or not?

LEIGH: Community life is stronger in high educated communities. One of the challenges is building social capital in not only lower educated communities, but also ethnically diverse communities. We know that social networks can be a vital form of safety net in these areas. We also know that the initial instinct of many people is to hunker down in the face of difference. So migrant communities are those in which social connection programs can have the largest impact.

LESTER: Right. And perhaps just closing off on this discussion about what might be driving this trend to less participation and community trust and engagement, what about the deeper perhaps moral and ethical issues around increasingly utilitarian ideas of individualism and consumer culture, and you know Margaret Thatcher's ‘there's no such thing as society’ – are these sort of underlying moral, ethical and even political questions feeding into an individual's perception of their role in society and the contributions and responsibilities that they might have?

LEIGH: So it has been suggested by some that the decline in community life is the fault of capitalism. I don't share that view. As I said before, I can actually see instances in which markets work best in high trust environments. If you and I don't trust one another and we want to write a contract, it becomes incredibly complicated because we have to think about all the different ways in which we might try to diddle each other. If we trust one another, we can do business on a handshake. So trust and strong markets do go together. But I think that in areas where there's been a real hollowing out of the labour market then that's harder to build trust. So you look at the decline in life expectancy across the US In 2015, 2016 and 2017 – that’s I think got much to do with the trade and technology shocks that have hit the United States, particularly technology. The opioid epidemic that swept through caused these ‘deaths of despair’. In an environment like that it becomes much harder to hold together the fabric of civil society, and particularly to hold it together across social classes. Robert Putnam's more recent book Our Kids is really poignant example of this, pointing out that higher educated Americans are less likely to regard less educated Americans in their neighbourhood as being their responsibility.

LESTER: Yes, there certainly seems to be a tension, if not a paradox at the heart of some of these issues. Capitalism I think, as we'd all probably understand, does rely on a high degree of social trust and capital to actually make it work. Not everything can and could be governed by regulations and laws and whatever, and yet on the other hand, there seems to be some evidence to suggest that those individualistic consumer attitudes could be working the other way against trust and whatever. And we've seen a big decline, as you say, in community trust in public institutions and even in corporations and governments. If we could move on, because I know your time’s very valuable, to - you've put out a bit of a message today on the emails, fighting coronavirus together, stressing I think the importance of these questions of social capital and people working as a community. What particular situation do we face right now with say charities, who on the one hand seem to be facing challenges and needs from the more vulnerable in this situation, and what I understand is falling off volunteering rates perhaps for self isolation and other reasons? What's going on here, and what needs to happen?

LEIGH: Charities are in a really tough space at the moment, Michael. They've seen a huge drop in their donations. Many have had to cancel fundraising events, such as fundraising balls. Organisations that run stores like Vinnies and Salvos are having to close their doors and lose the retail income that comes from there. Philanthropic foundations being hit by the stock market collapse and therefore giving less money. And at the same time, charities are being asked to do so much more. It’s charities we turn to when someone who’s self isolating needs help getting food. It’s charities we turn to when somebody with chemotherapy is worried about the effect that coronavirus could have on them. It's charities that we turn to when mental anguish spikes, as we're likely to see through this pandemic. So we need to be supporting charities. I had a major charity approaching me today, saying that it's seen the cancellation of all of its school events, suffered a huge loss in funding and it's about to tell many of the staff that they're not going to be able to be kept on. That's terrible at a time where we need to be building social solidarity; when we know that we have to engage in social distancing but in a way that doesn't destroy the fabric of society.

LESTER: Yes. I'm talking here on Radio Northern Beaches, Volunteer Voices. I'm Michael Lester with our guest today Andrew Leigh, the federal member in the ACT for the House of Representatives, who has a great professional economic as well as political interest in issues to do with social capital, trust and community involvement. Andrew, so the charities and the community sector generally is in a difficult, particularly difficult spot. As you say, the needs seem to be ramping up for them - particularly to cater for the more vulnerable - yet they seem to be faced with less money and less volunteering. Is there any way, what is the path for these sorts of organizations through all of this? I know that's a hard question, but how are they likely to be able to rise to these challenges?

LEIGH: The Government's first stimulus package left charities out altogether. We in Labor were very critical of that decision, because charities are at least as important as businesses at this time. Their second package did support some charities, but major charities have been left out. So that means for organizations like Mission Australia, Barnardos, the Smith Family, Goodstart Early Learning - they're not being supported at a time when the hit to their revenue is significant and the demand on their services is skyrocketing. So the government needs to recognize that these organizations are in direct need of urgent help. One of set of organizations that are really in dire shape are the food relief services. With supermarkets being overrun, there's just less food being provided to the food relief services, and yet there's so many more people that need these services. A corollary of these huge queues we've seen outside Centrelink is that there's many more people needing help with their grocery bills. So direct support to food relief services is absolutely critical, and is something that Linda Burney and I have been calling for for the past week.

LESTER: Yeah. Thank you very much for joining us here on Volunteer Voices on Radio Northern Beaches. Andrew Leigh, federal member of the House of Representatives in Canberra, for the Canberra electorate of Fenner. As we go out Andrew, it's a bit of a challenge here, isn't it, to social connections? And you know maybe we face the weather, we can rise to this opportunity. Do you have a final sort of thought or message about the sort of mind frame we should be bringing to all of this, as a society and as individuals and volunteers?

LEIGH: Yes, absolutely. Much of what I’ve just said is pessimistic. But I would end on a note of optimism. If you look back at Australia during World War Two, that was a period in which we managed to improve the strength of civic community in the face of significant adversity. We need to be really creative about thinking about how we can build civil society in an era of social distancing. We're going to be using online apps differently, and we need to use them to build local community support Facebook groups, to be sharing pictures of Italians singing from the balcony. If we get it right, we can emerge from this crisis as a more connected community than we went in.

LESTER: Yes. Thank you very much, and to take from the e-mail you sent out today, I think you suggested we should all learn to be kind and that society is not just a collection of individuals but a connected community. And thank you very much, Andrew Leigh.

LEIGH: Thank you, Michael.


Authorised by  Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.