Relocating disadvantage in Australian cities: the case of suburban Sydney

By Bill Randolph and Andy Tice

What do the Pope, the President of the United States and the head of the IMF have in common?  They have all recently spoken out against rising inequality which has now become a widely recognised global trend over the last thirty years (OECD, 2011; The Economist, 2012). With Oxfam (2016) reporting that the richest 62 people in the world had accumulated wealth equal to that of the poorest half of the world’s population put together, and the top 1% being worth more than the rest of the world’s population combined, the emergence of levels of inequality not seen since before the 1st World War has clearly started to penetrate political discourse.  Thomas Piketty (2014) has driven the point home even among hard-nosed economists.  Suddenly, inequality is back with a vengeance.  What has been discovered, of course, is the outcome of 30 years of neo-liberalism, which has more or less explicitly favoured those with capital and disadvantaged many of the rest.  Especially in the advanced economies, politicians across the globe are having to come to terms with increasingly restless populations who are showing their collective displeasure with this state of affairs at the polling booth.

But as urbanists know, social inequality has a spatial dimension.  Brenner and Theodore (2002) have argued that the impacts of neo-liberalism are arguably most evident in our cities where urban processes have been characterised by a distinctive shift in the locale of key socio-economic drivers.  The “Great Inversion” (Ehrenhalt, 2013) has reorientated the focus of economic growth back towards the centre of major cities as the emergent ‘knowledge economy’ has transformed the fortunes of once failing inner cities, often stimulated by major public policy intervention.  But the urban poor who were once concentrated in inner city areas have not simply disappeared.  They have found themselves increasingly displaced into older and more marginal suburbs beyond the inner city, many of which were developed in the period shortly before or in the three decades after the Second World War.

This shift has changed the nature of the debates on urban socio-spatial inequality, especially in the United States, where the emergence of suburban poverty (Kneebone & Berube, 2013; Semuels, 2015) has been associated with a strong local political response from the “First Suburb” coalition of financially challenged suburban local authorities in many American cities (Lucy & Phillips, 2000; Puentes & Orfield, 2002).  But similar trends have been identified in Canada (Hulchanski et al., 2010) and the UK (Lupton, 2011; Hunter, 2014).

Australia has not escaped this process.  The recent Oxfam report referred to above showed Australia to be only second to America in terms of the percentage increase in the share of national income received by the richest 1% of its citizens.  As a result, rising inequality is also a fact of life in Australia.  Our analysis of the spatial impact of these tends is based on a comparison of data for Sydney, Australia’s largest city, for 1986 and 2006 using the well-established Index of Socio-Economic Disadvantage produced by the Australia Bureau of Statistics for each Census.  The analysis confirms conclusively that there was a clear tendency for disadvantage to become increasingly suburbanised during this period, a period synonymous with the introduction of neo-liberal principles in the economic reforms of mid-1980’s and succeeding policy directions.  While the number of suburbs containing at least one census tract deemed to be highly disadvantaged had fallen marginally, suburbs with high concentrations of disadvantage (those where disadvantaged tracts accounted for 80% or more of that suburb’s population) increased significantly in number, indicating an increase in the geographic concentration of disadvantage.  Accompanying these changes was a dramatic reversal of the earlier geographical patterns of income distribution across the city with the almost total disappearance of the concentration of disadvantaged tracts evident in Sydney’s inner city in the 1980s.  There was also clear evidence of a widening gap between the wealthiest and poorest households in the city.  In the process, the income differential across the city deepened, with a loss of “middling” incomes across much of the city as the income profile has stretched both upwards and downwards.

That thirty years of “structural adjustment” in those countries at the forefront of the neo-liberal counterrevolution should have led to the deepening of social fault lines and the associated spatial restructuring of our cities in line with this should therefore not be surprising.  What remains to be seen is how far these adjustments will continue or whether an emerging political reaction to the predicable outcomes of untrammelled markets and policy-induced inequality will lead to a new consensus that will seek to address these new geographies of suburban disadvantage in advanced neo-liberal economies.

Where the suburban poor live: Typical low income housing in suburban Sydney. (Photo by Bill Randolph)


The full article, Suburbanizing Disadvantage in Australian Cities: Sociospatial Change in an Era of Neoliberalism, is accessible without a JUA subscription for a limited time as part of the May 2016 Virtual Issue on Global Urban Change.


Bill Randolph is a Professor and Director of the City Futures Research Centre in the Faculty of the Built Environment at The University of New South Wales, Australia.

Andrew Tice is a Senior Demographer in the New South Wales Department of Planning and Environment. 


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