News & Current Affairs
21 April 2015
by Judith Ireland
More than a million Australians live in poverty: report
More than a million Australians are living in poverty despite two decades of economic growth, according to new research which calls for a radical policy shake-up to deal with the national "disgrace".
Just weeks before the federal budget, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia has found that between 4 and 6 per cent of the population - or between 1 and 1.5 million - is classed as being in poverty, "with little to no hope of getting out of that situation".
On Monday Social Services Minister Scott Morrison held a meeting with Liberal backbenchers in Canberra to discuss the government's welfare policy direction.
With the Coalition talking of the need to control welfare spending and get more people into the workforce, the CEDA report - to be launched on Tuesday by Victorian Housing Minister Martin Foley - is calling on the government to "tear up the rule book" to deal with entrenched poverty.
Noting that Australia was now in its 24th year of uninterrupted economic growth, committee chief executive Stephen Martin said it was a "disgrace" that so many Australians lived in poverty.
Professor Martin said governments of all persuasions had been too reliant on "big stick" approaches to improve employment figures, 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.
The report says that poverty is a long-term issue, with about a quarter of people who exit poverty returning to being poor within two years.
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.
Key recommendations include improvements to early intervention programs to minimise hospital admissions for those with mental illness, targeting parents as well as children to stop intergenerational educational disadvantage and fixing discrimination against Indigenous Australians in the job market.
Anne Hampshire, of charity the Smith Family, who contributed to the report, said more focus was needed on identifying and helping families whose children "are likely to struggle in education".
"If people don't have reasonable finances, then they're going to struggle to provide the environment where children can succeed," she said.
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 Quinlansaid 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 prepares to unveil a suite of welfare changes aimed at reconciling its triple problem of low popularity, declining revenue and unsuccessful measures from its first budget. It is expected to at least partially retreat from its no-dole-for-six-months policy for jobless under-30s, cuts to family tax benefits and pension changes.
Mr Morrison has been working to draw a package together, which is expected to include simpler and better childcare assistance as part of an overall back-to-work approach.
This earn-or-learn focus will also include other incentives to promote workforce participation.