Most of us wouldn’t associate Australia with the term ‘poverty’, yet according to new research more than a million Australians are living in poverty despite two decades of economic growth.
Research released by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia on Tuesday finds that 4 to 6 per cent of Australians – that’s between one and 1.5 million of us – live in poverty, with little hope of escaping it.
Noting that Australia was now in its 24th year of uninterrupted economic growth, committee chief executive Stephen Martin stating it was a “disgrace” that so many Australians lived in poverty, and that governments of all persuasions have been too reliant on “big stick” approaches to the unemployment crisis noting these did not work if people did not have a stable home, adequate skills or were in a low-paying job.
“This is not bleeding heart, left-wing ideology,” Professor Martin said. “This is as much an economic issue as it is a social one.”
The report, called Addressing Entrenched Disadvantage in Australia, uses two methods to define poverty. One includes looking at whether households have access to goods and services that are deemed necessary, such as a substantial meal at least once a day, access to medical treatment if needed and a separate bed for each child. Another method looks at people’s social exclusion across seven areas, including employment, material resources and health.
Looking at incomes, the Australian Council of Social Service found that the threshold for poverty in 2011-12 was a disposable income of less than $400 a week for a single adult. On this measure, as many as 2.55 million Australians live in poverty.
However, the most important question which arises from this report is why so many people are falling through the cracks despite so many years of prosperity.
CEDA argues that along with the government’s fixation on “big stick” policies, for example Abbott’s proposed ‘work for the dole’ scheme, more focus should be put on programs such as early intervention for those with mental illness. And for children from disadvantaged families to be helped and specially funded so that they do not start school behind and do not keep going through their lives behind their peers.
The report also talks about reducing discrimination against Indigenous people in the job market, stating that those who have a high risk of falling into long-term poverty include people who do not finish high school, Indigenous Australians, those over 65, those with a long-term health problem or disability and those who live in a jobless household.
Beyondblue chief executive Georgie Harmen stressed that the mental health system set people up on a road to crisis and hospitalisation, rather than supporting them into good jobs, “so they don’t actually lead a life of poverty”.
Mental Health Australia chief executive Frank Quinlan said fixing poverty was not as simple as telling people to get a job.
“It’s true that employment is often the best path out of poverty. But is also true that many of the barriers to employment don’t rest with the individual who is unemployed,” he said.
“They rest with workplaces that are not well set up to deal with people who might have experienced complex disadvantages over a long period of time.”
The CEDA report comes as the government currently reviews the current childcare and welfare systems, and is just weeks away from handing down its second budget.