• Our perceptions on what poverty looks like in Australia don't always match reality. (Getty)Source: Getty
Many of the stereotypes about poverty in Australia don’t stand up to scrutiny. SBS Voices busts seven popular myths about disadvantage.
Nicola Heath

24 Nov 2017 - 9:23 AM  UPDATED 10 Jun 2020 - 11:28 AM

In Australia, if you’re unemployed and reliant on income assistance, some might call you a ‘dole bludger’. It’s one of many stereotypes that fails to capture the true nature of poverty and disadvantage in a country where increasing inequality – exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis – has created a gulf between the haves and have-nots.

Here are seven myths about poverty in Australia and the truth behind them.

Myth 1: Australia is a rich country

FACT: More than three million Australians live below the poverty line

Until recently, Australia enjoyed an unprecedented 25-year period of economic growth thanks to a mining boom, increased trade with China and a stimulus package that helped the nation sail through the global financial crisis relatively unscathed. But not everyone in Australia has benefited from the prosperity. The ACOSS Poverty in Australia 2020 report found that 3.24 million people in Australia or 13.6 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. Single parents, renters and people who are unemployed or receive social security payments were among the groups who reported the highest poverty rates in the country.

The ACOSS report, published in February, predated the COVID-19 crisis that is having unprecedented social and economic impacts on Australians. In April, nearly 600,000 people lost their jobs, sending the unemployment rate to 6.2 per cent. At the same time, the government introduced two new income support payments: JobSeeker, worth $1115 per fortnight (double Newstart, the payment it replaced) and JobKeeper, a $1500 fortnightly subsidy paid to employers to retain staff. The payments will lift many households above the poverty line, however, are planned to end in September 2020.     

MYTH 2: Only unemployed people are poor

FACT: More than one million working Australians live below the poverty line

What happens if you are lucky enough to have a job, but still struggle to make ends meet? According to the 2020 ACOSS report (which pre-dates COVID-19), 38 per cent of the 3.24 million people in Australia who were living below the poverty line received wages as their main source of income – and that was before underemployment in Australia rose 5.2 per cent to 13.3 per cent in April 2020.

Certain groups suffer more than others. The ACOSS report found that lone parent families experience the highest poverty rates by family type at 32 per cent, while a report released by the Brotherhood of St Laurence in March 2017 revealed that youth underemployment in Australia is 18 per cent of the youth labour force.

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The casualisation of the workforce and the rise of the gig economy mean a growing number of people lack job security and many of the benefits that come with a permanent position, like sick pay and annual leave. Many casual workers have also been left out of the government’s JobKeeper scheme.

MYTH 3: Australia’s social security system is a safety net that means if you have a disability, you will be financially supported

FACT: Around 800,000 people with a disability live below the poverty line in Australia.

The ACOSS report found that 36 per cent of people in households whose reference person receives the Disability Support Pension (DSP) is in poverty, while 17 per cent of people in households whose reference person receives Carer Payment live below the poverty line.

A disability may affect a person’s capacity to work and force them to rely on income support payments like the Disability Support Pension, which was not increased when the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments were introduced. The DSP is often not enough to cover living costs, especially in areas where rents are high. The ACOSS report also highlights extra expenses associated with disability, such as adjustments to the home or workplace, costs of care, additional transportation costs such as taxis and medical and pharmaceutical costs.

MYTH 4: Release from prison is the opportunity to turn over a new leaf

FACT: Nearly half of those who leave prison in Australia are homeless within the first six months.

The day you leave prison should be a happy one, but it can be a stressful period for many ex-inmates who have nowhere to stay. “Respondents that have ever been incarcerated, whether in juvenile detention, adult prison, or remand, are particularly prone to homelessness, even when comparing to other similarly vulnerable people,” states the University of Melbourne’s Journeys Home Research Report No. 6. A vicious cycle can emerge, as homelessness makes a return to prison more likely.

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MYTH 5: Older women are safe from homelessness

FACT: Women over 55 are the fastest growing homeless demographic in Australia

The stereotypical Baby Boomer is a wealthy white-collar professional who benefitted from a free university education and owns more than one property. But, like most stereotypes, it fails to reflect the facts. Homelessness among women aged 55 and over increased 31 per cent between 2011 and 2016, making them the fastest growing group of people experiencing homelessness.

A number of factors contribute to this trend: divorce, widowhood or domestic violence can make older women vulnerable to homelessness, as do poor employment opportunities, reduced superannuation and escalating rents.

MYTH 6: I’ll never be affected by a mental illness

FACT: Nearly half of all Australians will experience a mental disorder at some time in their life

Mental health issues are more common than you may think. The 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing found that 45 per cent of Australians will experience a mental disorder at some time in their lives. It is estimated that one in five Australians have experienced a mental disorder in the past 12 months, the most common being anxiety and affective disorders such as depression. Mental illness is not the main driver of homelessness. In fact homelessness is just as likely to be the cause of mental illness than the other way around. A 2011 study of homeless people in Melbourne found that 15 per cent of the sample had a mental illness before becoming homeless. Another 16 per cent developed a mental health condition after becoming homeless.

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MYTH 7: Children in Australia have access to a safe and secure home

FACT: One in six homeless people in Australia is a child aged 14 or under

Around 19,400 children under the age of 14 were homeless on Census night in Australia in 2016. Homelessness Australia identifies a range of factors that contribute to family homelessness: domestic and family violence, financial crisis, housing affordability, poverty, mental illness, substance or gambling dependency and abuse. Homelessness adversely affects children in many ways, including their health and education.

If this article has raised issues for you or someone you know is in need of support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

Filthy Rich & Homeless airs over three nights – June 9, 10 and 11 – on SBS at 8:30pm and SBS On Demand after broadcast.

Filthy Rich & Homeless Season 3 will also be subtitled in Simplified Chinese and Arabic and will be added to the subtitled collection on SBS On Demand.

Join the conversation #FilthyRichHomeless

Are you a teacher? Find classroom resources on homelessness on SBS Learn.

The series was produced and completed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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