The Poor Will Always Be With Us: So Says The Book Of Matthew (and Tony)


This week is national Anti-Poverty week

You would barely know it, from the desultory media coverage. Drowned out by the drumbeats of war and terror, the national media has expended little on this pressing social issue, although, as ever, the ABC has been able to devote a small amount of coverage.

For its part, the Abbott government has all but ignored Anti-Poverty Week. The relevant ministers, Social Services Minister Mitch Fifield and Human Services Minister Marise Payne, have had nothing to say about it. Neither has Employment Minister Eric Abetz, nor Treasurer Joe Hockey (although, given Hockey’s gaffe-prone tendencies, perhaps that’s just as well).

And yet, despite a miracle economy in its 23rd year of expansion, poverty is still  a serious problem in Australia.

Recent research on poverty and disadvantage shows the scale of the problem.

The Curtin Economics Centre has recently released a report entitled Falling Through the Cracks: Poverty and Disadvantage in Australia. Unlike traditional methods of measuring poverty, which arbitrarily consider the poverty line to be half of the median income, the Curtin report looks into “deep poverty” – households getting by on less than a third of the median income, after housing costs.

Deep poverty in Australia, 2011-12. "Deep poverty" is defined as the number of people whose real equivalised income, after housing costs, falls below various thresholds compared with median incomes. Source: Curtin Economics Centre.

What does this mean? According to the Curtin study, someone earning only 30 per cent of the median income in 2011-12 was typically getting by on just $208 a week.

Imagine having to pay your rent, food, and other daily necessities on just $208 a week.

And yet the report estimates that more than 1.1 million Australians are in this situation, including as many as 300,000 children. And many Australians are struggling to make do with even less than this “deep” poverty line of $208 a week.

The result is that many Australians are going without. In 2012, Anglicare published a detailed report into clients seeking emergency relief at its drop-in centres. It found three-quarters were not getting enough to eat, with 62 per cent cutting out meals altogether.

Nor are things getting any easier for this group. While the cost of some basic necessities such as a fresh food and groceries has been increasing only slowly, rents have been rising rapidly in the last decade – especially at the most affordable end of the spectrum. For very low income Australians, renting within easy commuting distance of the central business districts of our major cities is now almost impossible.

Anglicare also publishes an annual “rental affordability snapshot”. The report surveys tens of thousands of properties around the country, to judge rental affordability. It makes for uncomfortable reading for those who worried about deepening social exclusion in this country.

According to this year’s affordability report, just one per cent of the 62,000 properties it examined would be affordable for a single person on government benefits. For a single parent with one child on the government’s parenting payment, there were even fewer affordable properties.

The figures are even more alarming when we consider what a person on minimum wage could afford. Anglicare estimates that only four per cent of the properties it surveyed were affordable for a single person earning the minimum wage.

As Curtin University’s Professor Alan Duncan told the ABC’s Anna Vidot, there is now an urgent need to address the issue of affordable housing in this country.

“And that really is the call to action,” he said this week. “How can we deal with the situation where households are paying more than 50 per cent and sometimes three quarters of their income on rent?”

This underlines what welfare groups have been saying for some time: Australia is steadily developing a class of working poor.

The Australian Council of Social Service released its own report into poverty this week. It found that more than 2.54 million Australians are living below the accepted poverty line of 50 per cent of the median income.

ACOSS’s Tessa Boyd-Caine told the ABC that “a third of the people below the poverty line came from a household where wages are their main income.”

“Now that might be because of increasingly insecure work, it might be because people are working more casual hours, it might be because people are working more part-time work or it might be an issue about wages,” she continued. “But whatever the reason, we're seeing large numbers of people who are able to undertake paid work, but it simply is not enough.”

There are no prizes for guessing who suffers most from such deep disadvantage. It is the usual spectrum of disadvantage: single parents, the unemployed, those with few qualifications, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Women are over-represented, as are young people, and Australians living with illness or disability. According to the Curtin report, “over one-quarter of single parent and lone person households are in poverty, and one in seven experiences severe poverty”. The ACOSS study points out that people with a disability are twice as likely to live in poverty as the broader population: “In 2009 this was 27.4 per cent compared with 12.8 per cent for the total population, and this does not take account of the additional costs relating to disability (for housing, transport and medical services) borne by many people with a disability.”

None of this is exactly breaking news. Income inequality and disadvantage has been slowly worsening in Australia for at least a decade, as even the Treasury and the Productivity Commission acknowledge.

The trend is global. It affects many rich industrialised nations. While the rich get richer, the poor either stagnate or go backwards. Economic deregulation and footloose global capital, less and less beholden to national jurisdictions, are creating a winner-takes-all global economy in which a plutocracy of the top one per cent are seizing and controlling more and more of the world’s wealth. 

Far from fighting the trend, the Abbott government is making matters worse.

Joe Hockey’s May budget may not have fixed the budget deficit – that’s still blowing out – but it will disproportionately affect the poorest in our society.

There was confirmation of this “reverse Robin Hood” effect this week, in a report from the respected National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling. The report details just how skewed Hockey’s budget really was.

The worst impact will be felt by the poorest 20 per cent of households, who will lose 1.4 per cent of their household income as a result of the budget measures. The report notes that “by 2017-18 the impact of the budget clearly falls most heavily on low-income families with children.”

But then again, this government has never seemed too interested in the welfare of poorer Australians. After all, Treasurer Joe Hockey thinks that poor people don’t even drive cars, while Prime Minister Tony Abbott once said – echoing the Book of Matthew – that “the poor will always be with us.” Looking at the data, that will certainly be true after the first term of his government. 

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.