From the Vault – Spring 2003 – Social Mix
Social mix is easy to lampoon as this carton shows. This may be why governments now prefer to use the term “integrated communities” rather than “social mix”. Whatever the term, the issues raised in this 2003 Inner Voice remain relevant today.
What is a ‘Better Social Mix’?
According to Professor Tony Vinson’s study of social disadvantage, ‘Unequal in Life, those in Waterloo are the most disadvantaged people in greater Sydney. Local Member for Bligh, Clover Moore, says these tenants “struggle to live with low incomes, drug and alcohol addiction, gambling problems, mental illness, high debt levels and limited employment. These families need the Government’s support and help.”
No one is pretending that Waterloo and Redfern are free of problems and do not need strategic attention. There may be merit in the notion of tinkering with the local social mix, but do we really know what the implications are?
Firstly, we need to work out whether we’re talking about improving an area or improving the quality of life of the people living there. If the perception is that the disadvantaged population is the area’s problem, then the area could be ‘improved’ by moving the population away and replacing them with people who are more upwardly mobile. If it’s the present population’s quality of life that we’re trying to improve by moving new people in to ‘dilute’ them, then we should think of how that would work.
We might think that the new people would improve the quality of life for the original residents through three mechanisms. 1) That people who are more middle class provide role models of other ways in which it’s possible to live, so that kids don’t only see examples of unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction and petty crime around them as they grow up. 2) The new people might bring more money to the area and therefore more work opportunities. 3) The more affluent new people might also be more demanding about service provision and thereby bring about improvements for everyone.
But rather than assuming that a ‘better social mix’ will do the trick, we’ d better look for some proof or precedent.
There’s not a lot of hard evidence either way, but ‘Housing Tenure, Social Mix and Creating Inclusive Communities’, a paper by Kathy Arthurson of the University of South Australia, sheds a little light on some alarming potential outcomes.
Arthurson claims that because homeowners tend to be more mobile, they carry out their activities away from the area in which they live. This means that they are not really integrated into the community. The result is actually greater isolation for the remaining public tenants than if their neighbours had continued to be other public tenants. The research findings also question whether placing residents with different income levels in the same neighbourhood raises awareness of class differences, creating tensions rather than the social integration.
Arthurson makes an interesting point about what she perceives as governments shifting responsibility for the well-being of an area away from government and on to communities. “While varying social mix reflects efforts by government to create sustainable communities, it also represents a retreat from public policy as a way to alleviate problems of social inequality. Instead, community is portrayed as the locus of social change. Once the heterogeneous communities are created, and the problems of public tenants made less visible, then responsibility is placed on communities through some anticipated but highly questionable normalising effects of middle-income role models.”
It’s also interesting to read that “there are … some advantages in having high needs groups located together in certain regions. Many special government services are only available when numbers of recipients reach a certain threshold. Without a critical mass, services are unlikely to be set up or maintained once the concentrations of disadvantaged residents are lowered through dispersal.”
Back in December 2002, Shelter NSW hosted a conference, ‘Social Mix in our Cities’. Participants identified a number of concerns. The ‘Social inclusion and public housing estates workshop’ stated, “The group felt that to define the problems of estates as something to be addressed by encouraging social mix was fundamentally mistaken. The problems of the estates were related to issues like poverty, health, education, unemployment, transport, poor design, lack of maintenance etc. Addressing these problems directly was more likely to be effective than trying to restructure estates to encourage social mix.”
The workshop also concluded that as the problems of dysfunctional estates are exacerbated by reductions in government funding and the ever-tighter targeting of eligibility criteria to people with high and complex levels of need, it is unfair to blame the people for the problems, or to seek to resolve the problems by forcing already them to move.
In her conclusion Arthurson states:
“Clearly, continuing to pursue cur-rent directions in estate regeneration will obscure arguments about the importance, in lessening social disadvantage, of maintaining continued access to secure and low cost public housing. It seems more likely to lead to debates about communities as the locus of social change than positive actions by government to address causes of inequality.
“Implementing large scale changes to social mix rather than promoting social integration could easily become strategies to move tenants around and render them less visible and in need of some attention.”
What is a ‘Better Social Mix’? was originally published in Inner Voice Spring 2003 page 10.
Also see in this issue if ISV – Social Mix and the Challenges in Creating It.