• Older women are too often slipping into poverty across Australia (Getty)
Many older women living in Australia are at risk of poverty. SBS explains how life events like divorce and workplace inequities can compile to take a heavy toll on female finances.
By
Nicola Heath

5 Dec 2017 - 4:08 PM  UPDATED 8 Dec 2017 - 4:54 PM

Poverty is a daily reality for millions of Australian women aged 55 and over. 

Single elderly women – aged over 60 – living in Australia have the unfortunate distinction of belonging to the lowest income earning family group in the 2017 HILDA survey. This family subset, according to the survey, earns on average, less than $30,000 a year. It’s also the most likely household type to live in poverty. 

When it comes to finances, many women face an uphill battle all their lives. 

We’re paid less than men. In 2017, Australia’s full time gender pay gap is 15.3 per cent, or $251.20 less for women each week.

"By the time they are 60, 34 per cent of single women in Australia live in poverty."

Many of us take time out of work to have babies. According to a Women in Super report, the average career break for women is six years. “For a 30-year old on an annual salary of $50,000, a six-year career break costs $77,000 in lost super accumulation at retirement,” the report states. 

When we return to work, it is often part-time: over 70 per cent of all part-time workers are female. We make up 54.7 per cent of the casual workforce. 

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Women make up over two-thirds of Australia’s primary carers and 55 per cent of all carers.

When we retire, it’s with around half the superannuation of our male counterparts. “Superannuation is a system built for men, by men,” says Pascale Helyar-Moray, CEO of Human Super, a fund designed for women.

Helyar-Moray explains what retiring with 47 per cent less super than men looks like for women: “If ASFA [the superannuation industry peak body] defines a 'comfortable retirement' as $545,000, then women are retiring with just under $290,000. And if a 'modest' retirement is defined as being $24,250 per year, then this means that men can afford to live for 22.5 years - while women can only afford to live for 12 years.

“Considering that women live 5 per cent longer than to men, the harsh and frightening reality is this: Australian women literally cannot afford to live for a portion of their retirement,” she says. 

"Superannuation is a system built for men, by men."

In the middle of a housing affordability crisis, government income payments like the Aged Pension are “poverty traps”, according to Anglicare’s 2017 Rental Affordability Snapshot. “They are so low that people cannot afford to pay for their most basic needs, but must instead trade them off – rent or food; rent or medical needs; rent or transport to work,” reads the report. 

By the time they are 60, 34 per cent of single women in Australia live in poverty. 

Considering these factors, it’s no surprise that 2017 data acquired from the Salvation Army's Moneycare counselling service shows that casual and part-time workers, carers and pensioners – categories dominated by women – are more likely to seek out financial services now compared to 12 years ago.

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Experiencing abuse

Domestic violence can often cause some relationships to break down and negatively impact a woman's finances. According to Our Watch, women are at least three times more likely than men to experience violence from an intimate partner. Escaping an abusive relationship can take a financial toll on women who may need to leave work and find new accommodation.

An RMIT University study found that 16 per cent of women surveyed had experienced financial abuse, another form of domestic violence. “Some women don't even have access to a bank account,” says Kristen Hartnett, a financial counsellor at Salvation Army’s MoneyCare. “They lose a skill set and a confidence in managing money.” 

They are so low that people cannot afford to pay for their most basic needs, but must instead trade them off – rent or food; rent or medical needs; rent or transport to work

Hartnett also sees financial abuse of some elderly women. Conservative estimates suggest nine per cent of older Australians have experienced financial abuse; most victims of elder abuse are female.

Health and wellbeing are other factors to consider. Hartnett sees clients who engage in labour intensive work like cleaning who can’t go back to work because of a workplace injury. “They're forced into retirement a little bit sooner.”

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When life throws you a curveball

Historically, divorce has also taken a financial toll on women. In 2009, the Australian Institute of Family Studies released a report based on data from the HILDA survey that found that: “Four years after divorce, women experienced a 2.9 per cent increase in income from pre-divorce levels compared to an increase of 12.3 per cent for non-divorced women. For divorced men, income increased by 12.5 per cent.”

Inala (Queensland) resident, Sue, is just one of the growing number of women aged 55 and over who are at risk of homelessness. Sue, who appears in the new series of Struggle Street on SBS, has been divorced for 29 years and suffers from several ailments including osteoarthritis. She relies on a mobility scooter donated by the Salvation Army to get around. 

Sue has a fraught relationship with her housemate of six years and is looking for a new place to stay. “My children live in Hervey Bay. I got no family to take me in, I got no one.” 

Her only option is public housing, but with 4,000 Brisbane households on the waiting list it could take months before she is offered a place. A private rental is beyond Sue’s budget. “I wouldn’t eat,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills.”

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Where to find help

Hartnett would like to see more women take an interest in their finances from early adulthood. She recommends women live within their means and keep an active eye on superannuation.

However, she also recognises that you can’t prevent all causes of financial stress: many life events may not be preventable. “Relationships will still break down, and health will still go, and a child can still become disabled. Life throws curve balls that you can't control.” 

For anyone experiencing financial hardship, including older women, Hartnett recommends they contact a financial counselling service like MoneyCare. “That allows them to have a plan tailored to their situation.” Every case is individual, she says. “There's not a one size fits all answer.”

If you or someone you know are in need support, please call:

Love the story? Follow the author on Twitter: @nicoheath or Instagram: @nicola_heath.


All six episodes of Struggle Street series two are available to view on SBS On Demand

Struggle Street series two is produced by KEO Films with funding support from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.

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