Given the extreme or absolute poverty that is experienced in many developing countries, particularly the Sub-Sahara Africa and South Asia regions, the debate on poverty in Australia is often not given much prominence. Some still question whether poverty in Australia is a serious issue. Australia, after all is a wealthy nation, which, experienced a forecast surplus of $10.8 billion in the 2006-07 Federal Budget and a GDP increase of 23 per cent since 1996, which is well above the OECD average.
In the extensive literature on poverty, two terms often referred to are absolute poverty and relative poverty.
Relative poverty is the term most often used when examining poverty in Australia and other developed countries and is frequently a comparison between a generally accepted standard of living (and the income levels required to sustain that) with income levels that cannot meet that standard.
For example, Professor Peter Townsend has defined relative poverty as lacking the resources to obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged, or approved, in the societies to which people belong (Poverty in the United Kingdom, 1979).
Absolute poverty refers to a severe deprivation of basic human needs such as food, safe drinking water, shelter, health, sanitation facilities, education and information (World Summit on Social Development 1995). Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has said (PDF 100KB) that poverty is widely understood today as absolute poverty, also characterised by unsafe environments, social discrimination and exclusion, and by lack of participation in decision-making and in civil, social and cultural life.
There is currently no standard method of measuring poverty in Australia, and much debate about the extent of poverty and how it is measured (see The Poor In Australia: Who Are They and How Many Are There? 2002 for an overview of the Smith Family reports and the Centre for Independent Studies response).
While a significant amount of research on poverty in Australia is based on income levels, there are many other factors that affect poverty such as lack of education, lack of food, physical and mental health and housing availability and affordability, recognised by the broader definition given by Mary Robinson. Nor is poverty homogenous - there are variations on this theme. As an example, a significant proportion of people in Australia do not have access to adequate food, a human right recognised by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948).
Extensive service delivery across both Sydney and the Illawarra in the area of emergency relief has led ANGLICARE’S research efforts into food insecurity and a recognition that, for many people accessing our services, this right to adequate food is not being met in the way most people take for granted: by going to the store and using money to purchase food. For many of our clients, their right to food is not being met easily. It is often accessed through what is considered socially unacceptable means - food relief, food vouchers, soup kitchens and the like.
In 2005, we surveyed clients in the Wollongong region on their levels of food insecurity using a measure developed by the US Department of Agriculture and adapted to Australia.
Among the 119 client households surveyed, 95 per cent registered as food insecure, meaning that they had limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or a limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways. For 75 per cent of households, this was not just uncertainty about the next meal, but an experience of hunger at some time during the three months prior to being surveyed. Furthermore, adults in 25 per cent of households were going hungry almost every week.
In over half of households, adults did not eat for a whole day at least once in three months because they could not afford to, and half reported having lost weight. Of further concern was that in households with children, 70 per cent of children were food insecure, despite the adults of these households typically going without food in order to feed their children. (See When There Isn’t Enough to Eat: Study of Clients at ANGLICARE’s Emergency Relief Service in Wollongong: Summary of Pilot Survey Findings, October 2006.) These findings have also been confirmed by research conducted in relation to some of ANGLICARE Sydney’s EAPA clients in six of its centres (see A Survey of ANGLICARE’s EAPA Clients Across Sydney March 2005), which revealed that the majority of clients accessing these services were female, unemployed, single parents with children, and were struggling to meet some of the basic necessities of life, namely food and power.
The literature refers to various factors that can impact the supply of and access to food. For example, food supply depends on factors such as the number and location of food supply outlets, price, quality, variety and promotion, while food accessibility may depend on financial resources, distance and transportation to shops, storage and cooking facilities, time mobility and social supports (NSW Centre for Public Health Nutrition 2003 (PDF 411KB)). The most significant factor is lack of financial resources.