Where Is The Poverty Line?


This week is Anti-Poverty Week. Organisers hope the event will encourage Australians’ understanding of poverty and serve as a catalyst for change, a community call to action. It is a time to consider the 105,000 Australians currently experiencing homelessness and the further millions living below the poverty line.

Research conducted by the Australian Council of Social Services and the Social Policy and Research Centre at the University of NSW places that number at around 2.2 million. Perhaps this should come as little surprise. In decade to 2010, rent increased in Australia by close to 50 per cent, electricity by 87 per cent and healthcare by almost 65 per cent. To rent a one-bedroom apartment you’ll need $400 per week in Sydney and $289 in Melbourne.

Income support for a single person barely keeps up. At just $243 per week Centrelink’s Newstart Allowance was ranked lowest among 30 countries, with the OECD warning it was so low it raised "issues about its effectiveness” in enabling people to find work or study.

Perhaps the biggest paradox in poverty’s relative invisibility is the fact that it could quite easily affect so many of us. Recent research by Dun and Bradstreet revealed that more than a third of Australians could survive financially for only 30 days if they lost their job. For many, poverty is just a pay cheque away.

Paul McDonald is Victorian co-chair of Anti-Poverty Week and CEO of Anglicare Victoria. He told New Matilda the objective of awareness raising may sound a bit limp, but it’s actually something worth fighting for. A 2002 Brotherhood of St Laurence study exploring Australians’ attitudes to poverty revealed many people lacked "a clear definition of what poverty is in Australia today," and this lack of understanding may be contributing to an increasingly individualistic and less community-oriented society. The report recommended using human stories rather than statistics, and speaking positively using potential solutions to poverty, as a way of engaging a broad range of people in informed discussions about disadvantage.

"Of all the weeks with all the themes, I really feel Anti-Poverty Week is one of the ones that needs some serious awareness," McDonald says.

"As a society we don’t like being reminded about the struggles of people in our own backyards, our friends, neighbours, Indigenous community or homeless. Because the problem seems overwhelming sometimes we’re more likely to just throw our hands in the air and say ‘I don’t know what to do.’"

Michael Perusco is McDonald’s co-chair and CEO of St. Kilda’s Sacred Heart Mission. He says Anti-Poverty Week aims to challenge misconceptions about poverty and remove the veil of invisibility that often shrouds the problem.

"The intended outcome of Anti-Poverty Week is putting the issue of poverty at the front of people’s minds. We’re doing that through everything from encouraging sophisticated research on the issue right through to modest events where people get together in their workplaces, footy clubs or book clubs to talk openly about the issues."

One such event is The Big Issue’s Celebrity Selling Campaign. The magazine has enlisted celebrities and politicians across the country to take to the streets with Big Issue vendors to tackle misconceptions about disadvantage.

Emma O’Halloran is Marketing Manager at the Big Issue. She says many people think the unemployed are experiencing hardship through some great fault of their own, but that’s often not the case.

"In the end raising people out of poverty is the most important thing we can do and providing them with an income is the most powerful step we can take to achieving that. We think it’s about empowering people with their own income so they can take the steps they need to take to get a roof over their heads, focus on their health or rebuild family relationships."

Mark is living proof of this theory. After a "tough" childhood, losing his mum in a house fire and a stint in custody, Mark spent years living on the streets and crashing on a different couch every night. After endless time in unstable housing and months on the public housing waiting list, Mark now has his own unit, is holding down a part-time job washing cars and is quietly optimistic about the future.

"It doesn’t matter how bad life gets, when you’ve got your own unit you can just get home, switch off and have that bit of peace," he says.

Michael Perusco says it’s people like Mark who are trapped living on the fringe of society for years on end who require our help and support.

"This isn’t necessarily about a message to the government or a message to the opposition, it’s a message to all of us, that when it comes to the policies we’re making, it’s absolutely crucial to consider those doing it the toughest and really being excluded from Australia’s society and prosperity."

There are no quick fixes but Anti-Poverty Week organisers and supporters believe there are ways to sustainably lower poverty in Australia. They say it’s not always about a crisis response but about intervention and prevention. It’s about ensuring there are appropriate safety nets in place to provide all people access to the necessities for a healthy and dignified life: safe accommodation, education or job training, stable work environments, health care and support in reconnecting with the community.

These are things so many of us take for granted. "Australians are generally generous in their outlook," Paul McDonald says.

"We should be sharing our wealth so we can all share in Australia’s good fortune. If everyone just thought ‘I’ve paid my taxes, I’ve done my bit’, I don’t think we’d advance very far as a thinking society or as compassionate human beings."

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.