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Ending poverty must be Australia’s number one priority by Toni Wren

Young people and parents in the grip of poverty are speaking out about the relentless hardship they can’t escape – but which could change if our governments made ending poverty their number one priority.

We heard from single mum Emily during an Anti-Poverty Week seminar organised by the Brotherhood of St Laurence:

My rent just went up by $90 a week (which is not unusual in my region), the housing situation is catastrophic. I’m behind in my utility bills and am in a constant state of being hyper vigilant about everything, as there’s a domino effect of not having enough to cover basics.  We have no buffer at all, it’s all been used up.

Emily is not alone, people struggling to survive on JobSeeker, Youth Allowance and Parenting Payment Single all report they can’t afford to pay rent, cover bills like energy, phone and internet, as well as nutritious food.

New research by the Melbourne Institute released for Anti-Poverty Week reveals a sharp rise in poverty in Australia from 14.7 percent in 2016 to 18.3 percent for households with less than 60 percent of median income ($487 for a single person and $634 for a single parent with one child in 2021).

Their Community Profile interactive maps based on the 2021 Census provide analysis down to a suburb level and confirm extreme poverty remains alarmingly high in remote parts of northern Australia and other areas where higher numbers of our First Nations people are living.

Other Melbourne Institute reports released last week concluded that low-income earners (the people who rely on our means tested income support system) are three times more likely to have an earnings shock than higher earners.  Fewer than half of all people experiencing an earnings shock return to their earlier earnings within three years and is further proof our income support system is not doing its job of protecting people from poverty.

The report also confirmed that poverty is gendered. Women are much more likely to experience higher rates of economic shocks and are less likely to recover than men.  While the report doesn’t explicitly examine relationship breakdown, we would expect this is a major reason for women to experience economic shocks.

We don’t have the systems in place to protect women and their children from poverty, especially if the relationship breakdown is due to violence.  Earlier research from our partners at The Life Course Centre shows that women who experience violence in a relationship have triple the rate of financial hardship in the following year, then women who don’t experience violence.

We believe poverty alleviation in Australia needs to start with our children. Children who grow up in poverty are three times more likely to live in poverty as an adult. It’s not right that one in six Australian children live in poverty.  The 2023 Foodbank Hunger report released today finds 3.7 million households in Australia struggled to put food on the table this year.  That’s the equivalent of all the households in Sydney and Melbourne combined and nearly 400,000 more than in 2022.

Emily is worried about the impact of poverty on her son:

I’m most concerned about my 13 year old: his present and his future. He can’t participate in any after-school sports. He’s never seen to the sea. All the things we took for granted when we grew up. He will have to work as soon as he can leave school.

The Melbourne Institute research confirmed educational attainment is a protective factor from economic shocks and increases the chance of recovering from them.

We need to end child poverty as we know it significantly reduces success at school for the children who experience it, as well as impacting their health and wellbeing.

Children are increasingly at the front line of the housing crisis.  The number of homeless children under 18 has grown to one in four of all homeless people.  More than two thirds of people who are homeless are women and children under 18, according to the 2021 Census data.

Yet we know what works, the increases provided during the COVID pandemic significantly reduced poverty. For Emily and her son, it was life-changing:

 “The Covid payment made a huge difference, I could go to supermarket and buy what I wanted and didn’t have to resort to Foodbank. I got ahead on my bills, paid my rent ahead a bit, wasn’t so stressed and started to lose that hyper vigilance about everything. Between lockdowns, I took my son camping for the first time.”

The best way Australia can act to reduce poverty is to substantially increase income support payments so everyone can afford the basics. Another solution is to follow the lead of New Zealand and create legislation with measurable targets and actions. In Anti-Poverty Week we invite everyone to sign the petition calling on our Federal Government to create a Child Poverty Reduction Act.


Originally published in Canberra Times, 23/10/23 as Anti-poverty week: income subsidy would help give everyone a better start