There’s a pervading myth that poverty couldn’t possibly exist in Australia, the ‘lucky country’. But with over 2.9 million Australians currently living below the poverty line, social policy experts believe it’s time that we re-examine our understanding of inequality.
“Millions of people live in poverty in Australia, it doesn’t matter how you measure it,” says kylie valentine*, research director at University of NSW’s Social Policy Research Centre. “And a lot of people’s lives are touched by it in some way.”
Poverty can be measured using a number of different methods but the 2016 Poverty in Australia report sets the poverty line at 50 per cent of the country’s median household income. Using this index, any single person earning less than $426.30 per week or a couple with two children (after housing costs), which earns less than $895.22 could be deemed as living in poverty in Australia.
“Millions of people live in poverty in Australia, it doesn’t matter how you measure it."
Poverty is just one measure of hardship – financial stress, deprivation, housing stress and food insecurity are also indicators. That means someone can be facing disadvantage even if they are working. Struggling to make ends meet on a low wage, they may be unable to pay an electricity bill on time, go without eating regular meals or limit their social activities.
Pensioner, Pamela Pearce tells SBS that after the death of her partner, she very quickly found herself unable to afford the necessities that many take for granted.
"...do you know how embarrassing it is to go to people for help? You’ve got to sort of little yourself and that’s how I survived.”
“Everything went downhill,” the pensioner says in the SBS video series The Truth About Poverty. “Nothing went right. I don’t even leave the house because I can’t afford to do things.”
Pearce says she had to work out a way to make ends meet to keep the electricity on “because at that time I was on a machine,” she adds, referring to a piece of equipment that was essential to her health to run.
“So I went to St Vincent De Paul for help. And do you know how embarrassing it is to go to people for help? You’ve got to sort of little yourself and that’s how I survived.”
So why do some of us believe this myth?
Assistant pastor at Sydney’s Wayside Chapel, Jon Owen, says perhaps many of us don’t think that poverty exists in Australia because maybe we don’t know all the facts – maybe we only have a limited grasp of what poverty actually is.
“We tend to think of poverty as just a lack of cash and we need to broaden out that understanding of poverty, because poverty is more than just that,” explains Owen.
“Poverty is also about a sense of powerlessness. Poverty is about a sense of isolation. Poverty is also about a lack of hope that anything can be different, tangibly, in your life.
“…If we think that there’s no such thing as poverty and inequality in this country, we’re pulling the wool over our own eyes.”
If you or someone you know needs support, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
*Note: Name intentionally spelt in lower case.
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.