Working but still doing it tough: The reality of modern poverty

When you think of poor Australians, do you picture highly-qualified academics with three degrees and teaching jobs? In these cases, you should.

Rich and poor

When images of Syrian refugees checking their smartphones were beamed around the world, they sparked a debate about whether “real” refugees could afford such technology. 

However, not only does this moralising miss the point because Syrians are fleeing war not poverty, but, as *kylie valentine from the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW, tells SBS, smartphones are not a toy reserved for the rich but “a necessity to full participation in life”.

“Poverty isn’t just about a clean measure of’s about being able to participate in life and make choices."

As society becomes more reliant on the internet, including for job-seeking, job interviews and studying, terms like the ‘digital divide’ describe how the gap between richer and poorer Australians are made greater by exclusion from technology. 

“Poverty isn’t just about a clean measure of income,” valentine explains, “it’s about being able to participate in life and make choices."

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Of course, judgements about the choices “poor” people make is nothing new. “They used to question televisions, before that it was, ‘if you’re so poor, how can you afford to buy sugary treats,” valentine illustrates. “Some people just don’t want to believe there’s poverty in Australia and will always be able to rationalise it away.”

Not only does poverty already exist in Australia, it is exacerbated by rises in rent, mortgages, and living costs that are not matched by any rise in income. Combine all this with the casualisation of the workforce, and even many people who are working are at risk of poverty. 

[Note: * Name is intentionally spelled in lower case.]

Making ends meet

Auslan interpreter Nicole (who asks to have her surname omitted for privacy reasons), a 32-year-old single mother of two, considers herself “part of the working poor,” despite working full-time on higher than minimum wage. After rent and bills, Nicole says she has “about $100 a fortnight to go towards school excursions, canteen lunches, or petrol depending on how much driving I have to do”. 

Nicole lives in the outer western suburbs, more than an hour commute from work and two hours from her family, for the cheaper rent but still needs a housemate. It also means she relies on her car – another item that draws condemnation – as well as her devices, none of which she considers a luxury. 

After rent and bills, Nicole says she has “about $100 a fortnight to go towards school excursions, canteen lunches, or petrol depending on how much driving I have to do”.

“I couldn’t contact my workplace, babysitters, eldest daughter, anyone, without a phone. And my daughters have homework that is solely online meaning we need a computer. But in turn, we don’t have a house phone or Foxtel.” 

Although new qualifications led to an increase in her hourly rate, Nicole struggles more now than six years ago. “Without a dual income, living in Sydney is becoming more and more taxing. Going to the Salvation Army to help me pay a power bill once was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It felt like admitting failure as a parent,” she adds.

“Poor doesn’t always mean the kids on the Smith Family ads,” she describes. “Poor can also be the mum who skips meals to make sure her kids have them. Kids who still go on school camps but only because a grandparent pays for them. Families who always have clothes but only because mum got them all on sale or bought them second hand.”

Being single – even without kids – is the biggest risk factor for poverty. And, thanks to the rise of the ‘gig economy’ – short-term contracts and part-time jobs – it’s something that is hitting people even in jobs you’d least expect. 

Highly educated, poorly paid

Karin*, 33, is a casual academic with a PhD. For the 24 teaching weeks of the year, she earns “a reasonable income of $600-$700 a week after tax,” but needs to supplement her income, which is getting increasingly difficult as she gets older. “I cost more when it comes to things like retail or bar work and offices don’t tend to want to employ someone with three degrees to do admin.”

When she had a live-in partner, Karin was able to make do on her irregular income. “He is a teacher and we had a regular income during my off weeks,” but when they broke up, Karin found herself living in a “permanent state of stress and anxiety about making ends meet”. 

I cost more when it comes to things like retail or bar work and offices don’t tend to want to employ someone with three degrees to do admin.

Her monthly rent of $1000 takes up a third of her teaching income, and she has gone into debt to replace the nine-year old laptop that is essential for her work. “Without a working laptop, I couldn’t do my job, and considering I’m expected to reply to student emails in the evenings and on weekends, I need a smartphone as well.”

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Poverty is out of balance

After 11 years Karin says she is facing burnout, something fellow casual academic Talia* attests to. “The work is so precarious,” she tells me. “You do it out of love for students and love for your profession – but you can’t live off it.”

Working hard and being well qualified sometimes isn't enough to save people from falling into poverty.

Nicole, Karin, and Talia are not alone. According to the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), over one in eight people are estimated to be living below the poverty line, after taking account of their housing costs. 

“There are lots of things working to perpetuate inequality,” valentine says. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are at greater risk and people with a disability are twice as likely to live in poverty as the general population. 

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Janine (surname omitted for privacy reasons) is in her late 40s, and a severe disability has left her to secure long-term employment despite tertiary education and training in policy research. Even so, she, her partner and two children “managed okay” on his public service income.

“After tax, we had about $64,000 to cover everything; mortgage, groceries, rego, petrol bills,” she says. “That sounds completely manageable when you don’t count our large medical bills but we had no real reason to complain." 

“What amazes me is how tight life has become regardless, even with no mortgage.”

“We were no longer going to be able to manage our mortgage repayments,” she says. The family were only able to avoid having to leave “the community that sustained me throughout long periods of chronic isolating illness,” because of a modest inheritance following her mother-in-law’s death.

“What amazes me,” Janine says, “is how tight life has become regardless, even with no mortgage.” As well as her non-PBS covered medications, escalating energy costs meant having to become more frugal, such wearing wearing parkas around the home until bedtime – in freezing Canberra winters.

“We are not down and out,” Janine stresses, but “we do have a real sense of economic insecurity and it has brought stress into the household.”

valentine says that any significant attempt to mitigate this rising inequality – “the gaps between those are doing it tough and those who are not” –  is going to take a multi-pronged approached. Newstart and other social security measures are “wholly inadequate,” and need to be increased, while constitutional reform along the lines of the Uluru statement is essential to address issues specific to Indigenous people. 

As for the gig economy, it may be here to stay, but regulation is sorely needed, “to ensure people who are working aren’t in poverty.” 

[Note: * indicates that name has been changed for privacy reasons]

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Do you need support?

If you need help with debt, you can call the National Debt Hotline on 1800 007 007. 

If you or someone you know are in need of support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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