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Our forgotten poor

By Anne Turley and Cath Smith - posted Friday, 2 November 2007

it's said that a "rising tide lifts all boats" - that the best policy to reduce poverty is to promote economic growth. If that's the case, where have we gone wrong?

Australia has recorded 15 years of almost unbroken economic growth. In fact, from 2001 to 2006, growth averaged 3 per cent a year - well above the average rate of economic growth in the OECD. Yet new figures released recently by the Australian Council of Social Service reveal that a staggering 11 per cent of Australians live below the poverty line set by the OECD. This equates to about 2.2 million Australians (including 412,000 children).

Disturbingly, the data shows that over time the divide between the "haves" and "have nots" has become a gulf. In 2003-04, there were 9.8 per cent of Australians living below the poverty line. Ironically, for a country that prides itself on a "fair go", our nation is becoming more unequal as each year passes.


Sadly, this latest data comes as no surprise to the Victorian Council of Social Service, Melbourne Citymission or other community service organisations across the country. Research published this year as part of the Australia Fair campaign found one in 10 Australians struggle to make ends meet.

Across Australia, demand for housing services has become particularly acute. While much of the debate in this election has been about access to greenfield sites on the fringes of Australia's capital cities, simply releasing more land won't address the critical issue of homelessness — the rate of which has almost doubled across Australia over the past 20 years.

Nor will releasing more land increase the availability of beds in refuges and transitional housing.

In one recent two-week period, Melbourne Citymission had 360 young people seeking crisis accommodation, many of whom were escaping family violence or sexual abuse. Only 30 beds were available across Victoria. This is not unique to Victoria. Every day, community agencies across each state and territory come up against similar shortages.

This is unconscionable in a nation as prosperous as Australia, yet who on the national stage is offering a solution?

We know there are more points to be scored in debating the merits of the "worm", more fun to be had in analysing our leaders' respective choice of ties, but is there a chance that anyone soon is going to start talking about the future of the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement? How about the decimation of Commonwealth funding for the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program?


And what of the Australia Fair finding that one in 10 Australians struggle to pay for food, utilities and health care and often cannot access other essentials such as work, education, aged care, child care, counselling and legal services?

Across the nation, "everyday mums and dads" urgently need assistance. We're seeing the emergence of a new social class in Australia — the working poor — and accompanying phenomena, such as family homelessness.

We're also witness to families at breaking point, because they are unable to get access to support services such as respite care for their disabled child. And every week, we're overwhelmed by reports of parents and siblings at risk of physical harm because there is no support to help them manage children who have behavioural difficulties associated with an acquired brain injury. In 2005, unmet demand for disability accommodation and respite services across Australia was estimated at 23,800 people.

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First published in The Age on 29 October, 2007.

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About the Authors

Anne Turley is chief executive officer of Melbourne Citymission.

Cath Smith is chief executive officer of the Victorian Council of Social Service

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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