A wealthy nation like Australia should not have 3.3 million people and 761,000 children living below the poverty line.
At Sacred Heart Mission, we have been supporting people experiencing poverty and persistent disadvantage for more than 40 years. Over that time, Australian society has changed considerably in many ways, but our challenges with poverty have not improved.
Aussies living in poverty have to make difficult choices every day:
We’re all talking about the cost-of-living crisis and there are very few in our communities who remain untouched by rising inflation and sky-rocketing prices.
People on the lowest incomes, those who receive minimum wages or income support payments, are feeling the pinch the most.
Our case management staff report that people who access our services have increasing difficulties with meeting their basic needs and are seeking advice on how to stay afloat.
Our participants often report spending more than 30% or even over 50% of their income on rent, placing them in the category of rental stress, which increases their risk of homelessness.
We are seeing more people using payday lenders or Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) businesses such as Afterpay and Zip to be able to afford basic goods including groceries. Research by Good Shepherd highlights the dangers of using these services when someone is already financially vulnerable.
Our staff discourage these options, as clients frequently find they cannot pay the instalments either and are then subjected to fees and high interest rates, meaning that people are always ‘chasing their tail’ trying to manage multiple payments and keep up.
Some clients also have historical debt that they are trying to pay down – such as rent, fines and credit cards, which exacerbates these problems. As one staff member bluntly put it, “it’s very expensive to be broke.”
We are aware that some people resort to breaking the law in order to make ends meet. Examples of this include shoplifting, fare evading on public transport, and not paying for parking, which can lead to fines if they are caught.
While Sacred Heart Mission does not condone this behaviour, it is devastating that anyone in our society is needing to make these kinds of choices to get by and afford basic goods like food, rent and medication.
Clients who were asked directly about cost-of-living pressures put it simply:
Ultimately, the Australian Government must do more to address the current cost-of-living crisis, minimise inflation and ensure that people do not get trapped in the cycle of poverty and disadvantage. This is important for people who are working as well as those who are not.
It is extremely worrying that almost one in five Victorian accessing specialist homelessness services in the last financial year had a job; showing that having a job is not enough to prevent homelessness in the current environment.
Poverty causes immediate impacts, but it also produces lifelong and cumulative negative impacts on people leading to poorer outcomes in all aspects of their life. For example, it is common for our clients to have experienced homelessness, housing insecurity and poverty in childhood. They often didn’t go to school consistently, they may have moved around often or gone to school hungry, not performed well academically and left school early.
Leaving school early means that it’s harder to get into employment or improve your education later in life. If you have trouble reading or understanding numbers, it can be hard to get into the workforce – especially now as so many jobs require ‘digital literacy’.
Not being able to get a job that provides a minimum standard of living means that the cycle of poverty and inequality continues into the next generation if parents can’t provide for their children. This can also lead to crime – one encounter with the justice system can have lifelong impacts.
In the same way, without education and employment, people often have poorer health – they can’t explain what’s happening for them or the funds to seek health care when needed. Even Australia’s public health system has waiting lists for services like dental and optometry if you can’t pay for these things yourself.
All of this adds up for people and their families, and poverty can become entrenched in your life – it’s hard to get out of once that has happened.
There are some clear solutions to alleviate poverty and fix our housing crisis:
We cannot go on like this – Australian society must change to guarantee that no one is forced to live in poverty.
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