Systemic disadvantage requires systemic solutions

When we hear about poverty in Australia, many of us don't have a clear definition of it in our minds. Picture: Shutterstock
When we hear about poverty in Australia, many of us don't have a clear definition of it in our minds. Picture: Shutterstock

3.24 million Australians are living in poverty, according to the 2020 ACOSS report on poverty and inequality.

That is 13.6 per cent of our population, or one in eight Australians. This includes 739,000 children.

Would it surprise you to know that despite being signatories to the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, the first of which is "No poverty", Australia has the 16th-highest poverty rate out of the 34 wealthiest countries in the OECD?

These figures are staggering, especially when you consider that the narrative around social security in this country is focused on the cost of welfare to the taxpayer, rather than the number of people who need it.

When we hear about poverty in Australia, many of us don't have a clear definition of it in our minds - and truth be told, it can be defined in different ways. ACOSS uses two international poverty lines to measure poverty in Australia, set at 50 per cent and 60 per cent of median income level. If an individual's income is less than this, they are considered to be living in poverty. ACOSS also takes into account the cost of housing when calculating income.

These numbers are shocking enough, but they don't really characterise poverty in Australia. The definition doesn't help us imagine what poverty really means. Living in poverty in Australia looks like missing out on essentials such as food, healthcare, shelter, and, for children, school excursions, educational opportunities and healthy living habits like participating in sports and other extracurricular activities. It means stress, anxiety, poor nutrition and poor dental care, and for many, it means isolation.

Employment doesn't necessarily offer protection from poverty. People in paid employment are also living in poverty, with 7 per cent of wage earners in this situation, making up 38 per cent of all people living in poverty.

So if having a job doesn't protect you, what causes poverty?

ACOSS research tells us that there is a combination of factors that contribute to poverty. It's not just about a lack of money or resources for the basic needs of life, it's also about unequal distribution of income and wealth.


Australia's social security system is responsible for supporting people, but it does not provide enough help to prevent people from slipping into poverty. Rates are stagnant while the cost of living increases exponentially, with punitive government policy focused on keeping the social security financial burden down over relieving the social burden of a burgeoning underclass, policed by the private sector.

Unemployment and underemployment further exacerbate the issue, as there simply aren't enough jobs for everyone who wants to work, and there aren't enough hours available for those who need them. However, more than this, the state of labour in this country lends the power at the negotiating table heavily to the employer, minimising workers' ability to fight for fairer pay and conditions. Issues such as casualisation weigh heavily on our working population fighting to keep their heads above water.

The ever-growing cost of living also means our money just doesn't go as far as it used to, and no one knows this more than those receiving income support payments. Housing prices have increased significantly (a 33 per cent rental increase in six years is not uncommon, even in regional areas), food costs and utility bills are bearing down on the proverbial camel's back, and for many of us, COVID was the final straw that broke it. Housing is a basic human right, and we should be ensuring that everyone has a secure, safe roof over their heads before others can go back for seconds. But we don't.

What we are seeing are clear systemic failures in our government's fundamental purpose - providing for and protecting its citizens. Our leaders demand people pull themselves up by their bootstraps in a system designed to pin them down, and then blame them for their immobility while supporting and protecting the interests of corporations.

We cannot overcome systemic disadvantage on a case-by-case basis. We need to rethink the way we see our country, and inspire reform through meaningful policy change that recognises the basic human rights of all, regardless of perceived worthiness.

There should be no shame in our lived experience, but if there is, that shame belongs to those who perpetuate it.

This story Systemic disadvantage requires systemic solutions first appeared on The Canberra Times.