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Defining poverty and the things that matter in life ...

By Anne Hampshire - posted Friday, 13 April 2007

As economic commentator Ross Gittins suggested in the Sydney Morning Herald in late November last year, poverty is infrequently mentioned in Australian public policy discussions ("Don’t mention the ‘p’ word", November 29, 2006). Academic debates on poverty in Australia have tended to focus on a financially construed definition of poverty, often based on updated versions of the Henderson Poverty Line, first developed in the 1970s.

While not denying the importance of a financial component to poverty, across the globe there is an increasing interest in a broader understanding of the issue, through concepts such as social exclusion and or social inclusion. This recognises that a failure to share in the prosperity of a nation is not simply a question of a lack of material goods but may also include the capacity and ability to function economically and socially in society.

The Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales has been undertaking a major research project in partnership with a number of community agencies, including Mission Australia, Anglicare Sydney, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), to get a more grounded contemporary understanding of poverty and social exclusion in Australia today. The research aims to get a better sense of what Australians see as an acceptable standard of living - what are the essentials of life in contemporary Australia?


The research is being conducted in two phases. The first involved a series of focus group discussions (PDF 242KB) with clients and staff of the community agencies participating in the project, to better understand the problems faced by low income Australians and to get their view on what is needed to enjoy a decent standard of living.

These discussions confirmed that there are clearly groups of people in Australia who are missing out on the increased prosperity that over a decade of strong economic growth has brought to many other Australians.

The focus groups identified the broad range of areas which can impact on social exclusion-inclusion, including financial resources, employment, education, health and health care, housing, location, transport, social and civic engagement and access to care and support when required. The quotes below are from the focus groups and provide some indication of what some Australians are experiencing:

I can’t even afford second hand clothes …

I have five children in one room …

You basically just need a clean well-kept place … it’s fine being offered a place but if the toilet leaks or the roof leaks above your bed, I mean what kind of standard of living is that? ...

Everyone’s entitled to have a decent meal, it’s a right and if you don’t it affects you in so many ways, mentally, physically …

Transport is a constant problem …

It’s very hard to go out and meet new friends, cause you can’t afford to do things …

A lot of people do not respect teenagers at all, we’re just this big scary group of people …

The second phase of the project (PDF50KB) involved mailing a survey questionnaire to a random sample of the Australian population across all states. Over 2,700 people responded to the survey. A shorter version of the survey was also completed by about 670 clients of the community agencies.

Both surveys included a series of questions asking which among a list of items are essential in Australia today - things that no one should have to go without. Participants were asked three questions:

  • whether they thought an item was essential for all Australians;
  • whether they themselves had the item; and
  • if they didn’t, whether this was because they couldn’t afford it or because they didn’t want it.

The list of potential items included basics (for example, a substantial meal at least once a day); items that allow people to participate in community life (for example, to be treated with respect); things that people need at particular times in their lives (for example, dental treatment); and the ability to use key services and facilities (such as good public transport).
The most striking aspect of the results is their consistency across both surveys. Both showed that the basics of life - secure housing, warm clothes, a substantial meal and being able to buy prescribed medicines rank at the top of the list of essentials.

Aside from the basic items mentioned above however, the other essentials of life identified by both groups focused on broad quality of life indicators such as access to health, the availability of care and support when needed and to be treated with respect and accepted for whom one is.

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About the Author

Anne Hampshire has a background in research, social policy, program development, advocacy and education. She is currently National Manager of Research and Social Policy for Mission Australia, a national non-profit organisation.

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