As a nation, Australia has never appeared to be as ‘lucky’. Our collective wealth is at an all-time high, with our collective shares now worth a whopping $826 billion and more than $1 trillion in cash.
“We learnt recently that Australia has outperformed other OECD economies by achieving 25 consecutive years of positive economic growth," writes Professor Peter Saunders - Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW in Poverty in Australia 2016 report.
"That is a formidable achievement and one that is justifiably a source of collective pride.
“It means that someone born in 1991 now lives in a country where household disposable income is about twice the level it was when they were born, even after taking account of rising prices and population growth.”
So does this mean that Australia is still the ‘lucky country’ or should we abandon our belief in the label?
“I think in many ways, we still are the lucky country, but we have a large number of young people growing up in poverty and for them, the world doesn’t feel so bright."
Professor Saunders states that although “the economic pie has grown substantially over the period”, there are many Australians who have missed out on the benefits of such growth.
Around 3 million people residing in Australia are estimated to live below the poverty line. This group often face rising living costs, slow or stagnant wages growth and challenging employment rates.
Chief executive of The Smith Family, Dr Lisa O’Brien, tells SBS that although many Australians are being afforded the opportunities that go hand-in-hand with the luck of a developed country like Australia, there are many others who miss out.
“I think in many ways, we still are the lucky country, but we have a large number of young people growing up in poverty and for them, the world doesn’t feel so bright,” says Dr O’Brien. “We all have to take responsibility for that.”
Dr Cassandra Goldie, chief executive of Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) adds that poverty is not usually the result of a personal failing but rather an outcome of failings by governments, businesses and communities.
“Poverty is a choice we make as a society, and what it looks like is low and stagnant wages, insecure jobs, reduced educational opportunities, unaffordable housing, and social security payments well below the poverty line,” Dr Goldie tells SBS on email.
How do we define poverty?
Although the term ‘poverty line’ is widely discussed in relation to social disadvantage, Australia does not have one official definition of what the poverty line is.
However, one measurement used in Poverty in Australia 2016 report is the ‘50 per cent of median income poverty line’. This data set classes all households with a combined income that is lower than half of the average of all households in Australia as being below the ‘poverty line’. Income estimates do not include housing costs. The measurement breaks households into four types – lone adult, couple without children, lone parent and couple with two children. According to this definition, the poverty line (50 per cent of median income) for a single adult was $426.30 a week in 2014. For a couple with two children, it was $895.22 a week.
“Almost 731,300 children are living in families below the poverty line after taking account of housing costs and many will bear the scars of unmet need, exclusion and limited opportunities into their youth and adulthood,” the report states.
Australia’s after housing costs ‘headline’ poverty rate in 2013-14 stands at 13.3 per cent. Despite our strong economic performance, Australia’s 2014 poverty rate ranks 14th highest out of 36 OECD countries. We are doing better than the United States, which has the second highest headline poverty rate in the group at 17.5 per cent but worse than Denmark, which recorded the second lowest poverty rate at 5.4 per cent.
“Almost 731,300 children are living in families below the poverty line after taking account of housing costs and many will bear the scars of unmet need, exclusion and limited opportunities into their youth and adulthood."
“The fact that there are six countries with a poverty rate of eight per cent or less shows that it is possible to make substantial in-roads, even in countries that we have consistently outperformed economically,” Professor Saunders writes in the report.
Dr O’Brien stresses that poverty can happen to anyone: “it doesn’t take a whole lot for the wheels to fall off”.
“Poverty can be caused by a whole range of reasons, whether it be a serious illness, death of a loved one, losing a job, mental health problem or disability that makes it difficult to work,” says Dr O’Brien. “They’re all circumstances that will make it really hard for families and for single parents, that puts them under extraordinary pressure.
“It’s important to remember that it can sometimes [poverty or disadvantage] can just be a matter of luck or circumstances.”
If this article has raised issues for you or someone you know is in need of support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Season 3 of Struggle Street premieres Wednesday 9 October at 8.30pm on SBS. The four-part documentary series continues weekly on Wednesdays. Episodes will stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.