Social service providers' call for action during Anti-Poverty Week

Bendigo welfare workers have marked Anti-Poverty Week by calling on their community and government to invest in support services for disadvantaged residents. 

An Australian Council of Social Services report released on Sunday found three million Australians lived below the poverty line, their income considered insufficient to sustain an acceptable quality of life. 

A single-person household earning less than $426.30 per week fell below the poverty line, defined as the median household income in Australia, adjusted according to family size.  

Anglicare Victoria regional director Carolyn Wallace said the rate of poverty was unacceptable in a country she described as “predominantly wealthy”.

“I think it’s an issue we prefer to ignore or minimise,” she said. “We often blame people for their circumstances rather than understand and accept these are inter-generational and instructional issues.”

In the past year, Ms Wallace’s organisation received 1500 calls for financial counselling. She remained concerned welfare payments, including the Newstart unemployment allowance, were currently insufficient.    

The Newstart program allows single, unemployed people to claim a maximum of $528.70 a fortnight, leaving them $300 short of the country’s median household fortnightly income. More than half of its recipients fell below the poverty threshold. 

Ms Wallace said poverty then became entrenched because people were forced to avoid preventative health activities and could not afford travel to job interviews. The cost of transport and food were the biggest challenges facing cash-strapped regional Victorians, she said. 

While the report does not break down poverty according to geographic location, central Victorian towns have previously been singled out for their levels of disadvantage. Last year’s Dropping Off the Edge report named Eaglehawk, Heathcote, Maryborough and St Arnaud among Victoria’s 20 worst-off postcodes. 

Children hungry for more

​As many as 730,000 Australian children are living in poverty, a figure Bendigo health experts and community service providers have described as “disturbing”. 

The ACOSS report found almost one-fifth of children aged under 15 lived in homes with an income lower than the Australian median. 

Bendigo Community Health Services chief executive officer Kim Sykes said workers in her sector would be alarmed but not surprised by the increasing gap between the “haves and the have-nots”, and saw many children being born into disadvantage. 

“People in my generation would've prided themselves on the fact we all had opportunity,” she said. 

“No matter what your mum or dad did, you could make it, you could have a really good life. That's no longer the case.” 

Ms Sykes’ organisation announced earlier this year it would focus on early years intervention so young people met their developmental milestones on time. Children who lived in disadvantage were more likely to experience poor health outcomes, disengage from education and develop drug and alcohol dependencies, she said. 

Youth mental health service headspace this year began stocking its cupboards with free food and installed a shower and washing machine for young people without access to these facilities.

“There are young people who struggle to make ends meet, who feel really embarrassed about that and will go without, and who really struggle to ask for help,” she said.

Bendigo Foodshare chairwoman Cathie Steele said more than 60 central Victorian schools already received grocery donations from her organisation to feed students who might otherwise go hungry. Another 10 schools were on a waiting list until more food donors could be sourced.

Ms Steele said the largest increase in demand for Bendigo Foodshare’s service was from underemployed people struggling to make ends meet, in line with an ACOSS finding one-third of people below the poverty line had a wage as their main income. 

“There's still this idea that if people didn't smoke and drink, they'd be fine, but the vast majority of people aren't wasting their money,” Ms Steele said.

Welfare cuts make matters worse: researcher

Researchers behind a study into socio-economic disadvantage have said Australian politicians lack the will to address poverty rates in Australia, opting instead to cut taxes.  

ACOSS chief executive officer Dr Cassandra Goldie said poverty was a “shared responsibility” that could be eradicated if all sectors  – government, business, community and academia – worked together. 

“We should all be able to feel secure in the knowledge that, regardless of what life throws at us, including the ability to get a job, we will enough income to afford shelter, food and other essentials,” she said. 

“Unfortunately, our political leaders often seem more concerned with providing the next tax cut than with reducing poverty and inequality.”

Australia’s 2014 poverty rate ranked 14th highest out of 36 OECD countries. 

Canada, United Kingdom and New Zealand all registered lower levels of poverty, while the fewest people to experience disadvantage were found in Iceland, Denmark and the Czech Republic.