One of the many trends accelerated by COVID is the mounting pressure on Tasmania's community services sector to manage an increasing array of complex social challenges.
Challenges such as housing affordability/availability, family violence and mental health were already on an upward trajectory but COVID has exacerbated them, with profound social and political effects.
Socially, it will bring to the fore the importance of the community services sector to our future. While we hear a lot in Tasmania about the big important industries such as tourism or agriculture, in fact the health and community services industry is by far the state's biggest industry, the fastest growing (an estimated 12,000 additional jobs between 2015 and 2024) and the biggest employer in regional Tasmania. It is also the biggest contributor to the state's economic output at 14.2 per cent.
Both health and community services are under a raft of pressures especially from the changing nature of demand.
Most of us can now glimpse from the outside some of these pressures; increases in mental health clients, waiting lists and emergency relief demands and more rental stress. These are all likely to be exacerbated after Jobkeeper ceases.
There are five pressures which when combined point to an emerging crisis especially in the community services sector.
The first is increased demand pressure with a majority of agencies indicating increases in demand during COVID in a recent Australian Council of Social Services survey.
Some areas such as multicultural services have experienced an 86 per cent increase. Importantly this demand has included a very large number of 'new' clients, for example an 84 per cent increase in new clients for financial support and counselling.
Complexity pressure is the measure of how many risk factors a person faces. For example increasingly mental health, homelessness and drug dependency appear as co-morbidities, unsurprising given poverty and mental health are so strongly correlated despite society's attempts to frame mental health as an individual pathology.
During 2020, 76 per cent of community service agencies stated the complexity of need had increased.
Severity pressure measures how many clients are moving towards the crisis end of the service spectrum like child protection, family violence and hospital admissions. Recent Victorian scenario modelling suggests child protection notifications could increase by up to 25 per cent.
Temporal pressure is the increasing trend towards risk factors occurring much earlier in life; obesity and mental health are now accepted as features of childhood, not risks that only emerge in adulthood.
Often these risks emerge very quickly, like when a young child clicks on a text link and is bullied. Risks are emerging faster and earlier in life and for more people.
Supply pressure means the system capacity to respond is declining. We see this in many areas with rental housing availability and family violence services two of the more persistent areas of concern. Even if housing was affordable it is often not available. COVID has placed an additional level of pressure on systems already struggling to cope.
The ACOSS survey reported that the number of volunteers in the sector dropped by 26 per cent during the first six months of COVID and that 35 per cent had to draw down on reserves to stay afloat.
Similarly many households depleted savings during COVID and the evidence suggests it could take years to replenish.
It also means that for some time those agencies and households will be more vulnerable if there are additional shocks.
Some of these pressures may wind back a little but most are here to stay, many currently muted by Jobseeker payments.
One of the many consequences of system overload is the spillover of clients into the crisis systems like child protection and acute hospital care.
In Tasmania we have come to accept a few simple 'canaries in the coalmine' measures of how our service systems are generally coping including hospital ramping, family violence, child protection notifications, and now mental health in the workplace.
Without substantial reinvestment and innovation in the community services sector and related industries these measures are likely to go off the dial in the next few years.
If these trends do indeed unfold there will be profound political consequences. The additional number and diversity of people at the tipping point of hardship, combined with service responses not coping will play out as a larger cohort sheeting the blame on governments of the day.
Now we have seen how governments can support a living income (Jobseeker, rent subsidies etc) the double whammy of unmet need and Jobseeker loss will make for interesting new voting patterns.
This will be exacerbated in seats of high demand for social support services such as Bass where the margin at the last federal election was a mere 300 votes.
In the emerging post-COVID world the public is much more attenuated to social risks and the role of government in social protection, not just jobs, jobs, jobs.
How political parties respond will define the next decade.
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