With the election over and the new Government now settling down to introducing its election promises, UnitingCare Australia and a number of other community service providers have begun a campaign to put poverty on the national political agenda.
During an election campaign where both sides promised billions to secure the votes of the “Aussie Battler” - the families with children, middle-income wage earners and the metropolitan mortgage belt, the 3.6 million Australian battlers living in poverty failed to rate a serious mention.
In Anti-Poverty Week (October 18 – 22), organisations like UnitingCare Australia urged the Government to commit to a national action plan to fight poverty. In a climate of relative economic growth and wealth the message that the divide between the have’s and have nots is growing is simply not getting through. The fact that one tenth of Australian households now own 45 per cent of our wealth while half of households own only 7 per cent is unknown by most.
The harsh reality of this divide was re-enforced in the recently released UN Human Development Index 2004.
It showed Australia’s economic growth helped rank us third in the highly developed world for our human development but at the same time put us among the worst performers when it came to poverty. In fact we placed fourth on the human poverty index, just ahead of the UK, Ireland and the US.
Each day, UnitingCare Australia, through its national network of over 400 service providers, works with families who live in poverty. For them, it’s a daily battle to make ends meet once the rent and bills are taken out. Their journey to poverty is as varied as the help they seek from our services and it’s for this reason that there is no easy solution. For the great majority poverty is a result of unemployment and social security dependence. While Australia’s rapidly growing economy has created many new jobs in the last eight years, most of which pass by Australia’s poor. And the jobs that haven’t tend to be in insecure, low paid casual employment.
Postcode poverty is another growing concern. It’s the trend towards poverty being heavily concentrated in particular parts of Australia, often well away from where new jobs are being created. In our capital cities you only need look at the high percentage of commuters who travel from the outer suburbs each day into the CBD areas for employment. For those affected by postcode poverty access to transport is often limited and traveling long distances to where new jobs are, is impossible. Sadly, there are now postcodes in some of our cities where three generations in the same family have never held down stable work.
But simply creating jobs isn’t the answer for Australia’s poor. Over 1 million new jobs have been created in recent years and the official unemployment is now at 5.7 per cent - a 20-year low. Impressive figures at face value, but the reality is around one third of all jobs in Australia are now casual jobs.
Around 1 million Australians now have the dubious honour of being our working poor. They work in low paid jobs, often in unskilled roles and as part time or casual employees, in an attempt to get ahead. For many, they have followed the will of our political leaders and broken the cycle of welfare dependence only to find themselves little or not better off than they were before. Despite this, they battle on, often with a sense of pride that stops them from accessing help until they are at breaking point. All the while, they are forced to make sacrifices and cut corners on their health or the health of their children, go without essentials like clothing and even to skip meals. Australia’s economic boom has left them high and dry and without immediate and decisive action, they will continue to face adversity.
The recent Senate Inquiry into Poverty heard an enormous range of stories about the impact of poverty in our community. Through countless submissions and testimony, two clear messages shone through.
The first was that poverty is not just about disadvantage - as has traditionally been suggested - it’s also about exclusion and a lack of opportunity and choice.
Second was that tackling poverty requires Federal Government leadership and a national strategy, involving all levels of Government across the states and territories. The idea that the answer to poverty is simply creating an environment of economic and jobs growth is outdated.
That may have been the case 30 years ago, when unemployment was short term, but with entrenched unemployment and disadvantage we need more than just jobs creation - we need job readiness. Long-term unemployed people are so detached from the labour market that they require not only upskilling but assistance to address issues of self esteem and identity. If you have grown up in a household where nobody has ever worked and in a community where most people do not work, there is far more to getting a job than just turning up to an interview.
It is only with an understanding of these complex issues and when we accept that poverty is the result of the combined economic and social policy failures of all levels of government that we will find an answer. This is why the UnitingCare network has joined with other social service agencies from across Australia to put poverty on the political agenda.
Simply we are asking the Federal Government to take leadership to address poverty by putting it on the agenda with the States and Territories to develop a well-resourced national action plan that targets the causes and effects of poverty. It will take a coordinated and concerted plan to make a decisive impact on poverty in Australia and only the Federal Government can lead a national response that gets the States and Territories to sign onto a National Anti-Poverty Plan. Without it, the real Aussie battlers will be left to watch the gap between the haves and the have nots grow even further in Australia.