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Poverty in Australia - an ACOSS view

By Andrew McCallum - posted Monday, 22 August 2005

The recent Live 8 concert and subsequent campaigning action around the G8 summit once again brought global poverty to the fore. The scenes and stories of people in Africa provide dramatic examples of extreme poverty.

While it is obvious poverty at home in Australia is not of the same scale or severity as the developing world, ACOSS believes poverty still exists according to contemporary definitions of what poverty is. One widely accepted definition describes poverty as “an enforced lack of socially perceived necessities”. This means poverty is a relative term defined by a society to describe the people who cannot participate in the activities that most people take for granted. Some of the experiences of people living in poverty, such as juggling payments of bills, are widely shared by others in the community. Other aspects of their lives are almost unimaginable to most of us: such as the experience of seeking food parcels from emergency relief agencies or living on the streets.

Using the number of jobless people, who are frequently reliant on social security payments, ACOSS estimates around two million people are living in poverty in Australia. Much of this poverty and disadvantage is concentrated in outer metropolitan suburbs and regional areas. Studies have shown that unemployment is more concentrated in some suburbs and areas. In 1976 employment levels were similar across suburbs, but by 1991 employment levels in richer suburbs had remained virtually unchanged while poorer suburbs had a 38 per cent decline in employment.


In times of economic growth, it is surprising to many that poverty still exists and that for many people their circumstances have not changed, despite relative prosperity in Australia. For example, the number of people unemployed for five years or more has actually risen by 40,000 over the past five years. The number of long-term unemployed - those who have been on payments for a year or more - has remained fairly stagnant during that time. Currently there are 340,000 long-term unemployed people, and across Australia 800,000 children are growing up in jobless families. Unemployment payments are as low as $200 a week for a single adult and jobless people often live in poverty.

This broader understanding of what constitutes poverty needs to be raised among the public and decision-makers if Australia is to ensure that economic growth does not leave some people behind. This includes embracing poverty as something caused not just by individual circumstances but by structural inequities. Poverty is experienced by people without secure homes and stable employment, plus limited access to health, services and education.

This year, ACOSS is working to raise understanding of the possible impacts of welfare changes to put more single parents and people with disabilities on lower-paying allowances rather than pension payments after July 2006. This will mean a weekly cut in income of $20 for single parents and $40 for people with disabilities. Those who seek full-time study to try and improve their prospects could face income reductions of $155 per week.

Education is one of the keys to raising people’s incomes and life chances. It is one of the keys to moving people out of poverty - and their children. Families with low education levels often cannot afford to better educate their children. This means that:

  • People who have not completed high school have an unemployment rate of 11.3 per cent compared with 3 per cent of people with a bachelor degree.
  • In one study, 15 per cent of children whose parents only completed Year 10 achieved outstanding school results themselves, whereas 44 per cent of children whose parents completed university achieved outstanding results.

ACOSS is calling on all Australians to use its online Action Network to write to their local member of parliament about these welfare changes. We are calling on politicians and the Federal Government to not make single parents and people with disabilities live on less money, and instead, to invest in the kind of education, employment assistance and support people need to find ways out of poverty and joblessness.


Seeing poverty in its most visible and heart-wrenching form in Africa and other parts of the developing world rightfully provokes people’s compassion and action. At the same time, just because we often cannot “see” poverty in Australia in the same way, it does not mean that we should become complacent about our own country. Instead, Australia should use the resources, opportunity and expertise it has to ensure that people here are not left behind by the nation’s economic growth.

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About the Author

Andrew McCallum is president of the Australian Council of Social Services.

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