One in seven Australians lives in poverty, and the situation is getting worse. That’s the startling conclusion of a comprehensive report released on 12 October by the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS).
Poverty in Australia 2014 found that more than 2.5 million people, including 600,000 children, struggle below the poverty line. Despite almost uninterrupted economic growth, poverty in Australia has increased in the last decade.
ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie said that the findings are a “wake-up call” and “shine a spotlight on the current policy direction of [the] federal government.
“In particular … over a third of children in sole parent families [are] living in poverty. This is due to the lower levels of employment among sole parent households, especially those with very young children, and the low level of social security payments for these families.”
The most widely needed social security payments fall well below the poverty line, which is calculated at $400 per week for a single person. More than half of those on the Newstart allowance live in poverty, as do almost half of those who rely on the disability support pension or parenting payment.
Red Flag contacted the Welfare Rights Network about the report. Network president Maree O’Halloran labelled its findings “disturbing but unsurprising”.
“Since 2011, the number of people out of work for more than 24 months has surged by a massive 234 percent”, she said. “Many of these 355,000 job seekers have been living lives of unseen desperation on manifestly inadequate social security support.”
The extreme hardship many endure is illustrated by research published in the Economic and Labour Relations Review, which found that a quarter of Newstart recipients in Sydney’s inner west who have been jobless for more than a year have begged on the street for help.
“It is critical that the harsh social security bills before the parliament, which will remove benefits from single parents, cut important programs like to Pensioner Education Supplement, freeze family payments and limit future pension rises, are stopped in their tracks”, O’Halloran said.
It isn’t just welfare recipients who are struggling. Almost 800,000 people live below the poverty line despite being in paid work.
Hayden, a young retail industry worker and part time student, told Red Flag about the difficulties he has trying to get by: “After paying rent and bills each week, I’m left with about $65 and that mostly buys food and train tickets.” The report’s findings didn’t surprise him.
“Each week I always seem to overhear or get involved in a conversation about the cost of living in Sydney, the exorbitant prices of commuting and the lack of full time and even graduate employment available”, he said. “I work as a casual and therefore get a slightly higher rate of pay per hour. I don’t know how some of my part time workmates survive each week while also juggling uni.”
To add insult to injury, hospitality bosses have been attacking penalty rates, which many workers in the industry rely on. “There have already been calls from retail executives and from Liberal politicians to cut penalty rates on public holidays and weekends”, Hayden said. “At that point I will have to reconsider uni and search for full time employment, probably in my current retail job, just to make ends meet. It’s hard enough juggling study and work, and at times I feel like I’ll never get ahead.”
That feeling isn’t confined to students and young workers. The data show that those aged 25 to 64 are only a fraction less likely to be poor than younger people.
Confirming the findings of the report, research carried out by Ernst and Young also reveals that one in five households has been unable to pay an electricity bill in the past year. In NSW the energy and water ombudsman has reported “a worrying increase in complaints as a consequence of affordability problems, particularly completed disconnection”.
Poem: An uncertain future
What am I going to do about money?
I see my mum who worked all her life
but she has no money.
it’s pretty bad
when you work all your life and your only income
is the pension.
If I did have children …
I don’t have any savings or a stable job;
it would be really stressful I think.
And not being able to do anything.
And if you get sick you’re a bit stuffed too.
Source: Poverty in Australia 2014 report