New study highlights impact of COVID-19 on services to assist marginalised young people

With young people hit hard by the response to the pandemic, an Australian-first study looks at the impact of arts-based social enterprises (ASEs) in engaging those most affected by unemployment and precarious work.

The RMIT-led study shows ASEs can empower young people who are most vulnerable to disengagement from work and study and who comprise the majority of Australians who remain unemployed for long periods of time.

Yet, 80% of ASEs face significant challenges achieving the expectation that they generate most of their income from business revenue, one made even harder by the economic impact of COVID-19.

These are some of the key findings of the research project, Arts-based Social Enterprise and Marginalised Young People’s Transitions, outlined in a critical policy brief.

Based on interviews with 12 arts-based social enterprises across Australia and three in-depth cases studies, the briefing draws upon the expertise of RMIT’s education, art and social science research community to inform policy makers on the opportunities and challenges for ASEs in supporting young people.

Recognising engagement and well-being outcomes for young people
ASEs aim to generate positive social benefits for marginalised young people, trading creative products or services to help fulfil that mission and can range from media production and fashion to art and design.

The study showed these enterprises were highly effective at engaging marginalised young people because of their emphasis on learning through arts and cultural activities and focused on their strengths rather than deficits.

Lead author and Senior Research Fellow in the School of Art, Dr Grace McQuilten, said ASEs were pivotal in improving engagement and wellbeing outcomes for young people.

“These are key to generating positive pathways for marginalised young people and have a crucial role in underpinning development of skills and transitions to further employment or education,” she said.

Yet the impacts of improved health and well-being on young people transitioning to employment or education were not recognised by government and funders, the report found.

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Providing sustainable operational funding and business development support
Another area highlighted in the study was the requirement by ASEs to generate increased commercial revenue, made more difficult due to the pandemic.

It found this commercial requirement impacted upon their financial sustainability and was seen by key staff as detracting from core activities to support young people.

On the other hand, ASEs with funding streams that supported longer term planning and operational costs reported greater capacity to create positive social outcomes and develop enterprise streams.

To ensure financial stability across ASEs, the study recommended looking at ways to provide enterprises with sustainable operational funding and business development support.

Co-author of the policy brief, the School of Education’s Professor Peter Kelly said society needed to recognise both the good ASEs performed but also the challenges they faced in trying to do that.

“We need to find ways to ensure they don’t have to spend so much time focusing on how to generate income in the context of a recession and can instead concentrate on the social good that’s their core business,” he said.

This business involves working with young people at risk of homelessness, who have been in prison, or have disengaged from school due to mental health issues or are from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

Young people from a range of backgrounds have been disproportionately affected by unemployment and precarious employment since the Global Financial Crisis and, more recently, by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the report.

And those growing up in varied circumstances of disadvantage were more vulnerable than most to disengagement from work and study and to long term unemployment.

“Social enterprises offer real promise in meeting the most pressing needs of the most marginalised groups of young people but how they are supported to do that social good is the challenge,” Kelly said.

The policy brief is based on the research project, Arts-based Social Enterprises and Marginalised Young People’s Transitions (2017-2021), supported by the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme.