Toxic Forces Behind Poverty

Misogyny, violence, racism, classism: the toxic forces behind our shameful poverty rates

How does poverty remain entrenched while wealth bounds on? The answer isn’t only about economics, but also about culture

Women over 55 are now the fastest growing category of people experiencing homelessness in Australia
Women over 55 are now the fastest growing category of people experiencing homelessness in Australia. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Australia is now the wealthiest country in the world and yet our poverty rates have remained persistently high over decades of economic growth.

Why does poverty remain entrenched while overall wealth bounds on? How is it that this is tolerated, let alone reinforced, by government policies? The answer isn’t just about economics, it’s also about culture. There are dark forces at play that allow the experience of poverty to persist despite being surrounded by wealth.

Misogyny, violence, racism, classism and discrimination lurk in the shadows behind our shameful poverty rates. More than three million people in Australia, including 739,000 children, live below the relative poverty line. The people affected include single-parent families, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and people with a disability.

The overrepresentation of women

One-third of all single-parent families and two-thirds of those without paid work are in poverty. Almost all of these families are headed up by women. Single mothers are forced to jump through a set of demeaning hoops in exchange for the pittance they receive in income support. Many are on the appallingly low Newstart rate, which has not increased in real terms for 25 years. They are forced to ask third parties to swear a statutory declaration that they are not in a relationship (95% of people required to take part in this humiliating “third-party verification” process are women). Some are forced to use the government’s cashless debit card, restricting how they can spend their paltry income support payments. Women, especially Indigenous women, are overrepresented among those affected by cashless debit and income management.

Not only are these heavy-handed policies demeaning, they throw up practical problems like not being able to buy second-hand goods and not being able to shop at markets in an effort to find cheaper, healthy produce. And then there’s ParentsNext – the Coalition government’s paternalistic program that forces parents – again mostly mothers – to complete “activities” under the threat of having income support payments cuts off, despite the uncertainty that comes with caring for children as young as six months old.

These activities include playgroups and doctor visits, as well as training for future employment. The policy assumes people are not good parents simply because they receive income support. One-fifth of parents in the program have had their income support payments cut off for a period of time, usually simply because they didn’t report their activities or attend a meeting.

These punitive programs send a clear message to single mothers – “we don’t trust you” – eroding their confidence and self-worth when they need it most. The reality is that single mothers are incredibly selfless. Countless times I’ve heard about a single mum eating just one meal per day so that her kids can eat. Even more tragically, we hear of women who stay in violent relationships because they can’t afford to leave and they can see the humiliation of our income-support system.

It’s an inconvenient truth that, in Australia, single mothers and their children paid the price of the global financial crisis, caused (mostly) by wealthy men. The rate of poverty among unemployed single parents and their children almost doubled to 59% following the government’s 2013 decision to move another 80,000 single parents off the parenting payment single allowance down on to the paltry Newstart payment once their youngest child turned eight. This savage cut to income support for single parents followed the Howard government’s 2006 policy of moving all new single parents onto Newstart once the youngest child was eight. Terese Edwards, the chief executive of the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children, led the fight against this policy. We pleaded with the then Gillard government not to do this to single parents and their children. This savage increase in poverty among single parents and their children was entirely predictable – a choice that the government made in attempts to return a budget to surplus in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Then we had a raft of cuts in the 2014 Abbott-Hockey budget: the freezing of the family payments for single-parent families; the cut to the energy supplement for families; and the subsequent changes to childcare, which have all negatively affected some of the lowest income families.

While single mothers have been made particularly vulnerable to government policy, women generally are made to suffer the harsh inadequacy of our income support system. Women are overrepresented among long-term recipients of Newstart so they are living in severe poverty for extended periods of time. Older women are more likely than older men to have to go on Newstart, facing difficulties finding paid work after caring for children or a family member or after a relationship breakdown.

Older women, aged 55 to the age pension age, are at a distinct disadvantage when locked out of the labour market. They generally have much lower superannuation balances compared with male counterparts from which to draw during times of unemployment to supplement the poor rates of income support.

We see the impact in the increasing number of older women becoming homeless. Women over 55 are now the fastest growing category of people experiencing homelessness.

How is it that our society leaves so many women condemned to poverty, particularly after lifetimes of unpaid work and unpaid caring? The answer lies in a large part with misogyny and violence. These dark forces see women paid less, women expected to take on the bulk of unpaid labour in the home, women safer on the streets than at home and women left trying to rebuild lives shattered by violence.

Racism and classism play their part

Misogyny and violence are not the only forces that keep certain people in poverty. Racism, classism and discrimination play their dangerous parts too.

Australia’s history of racism and violence carries a shameful ongoing legacy. While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise 3% of the population, they represent 10.5% of those receiving Newstart allowance and youth allowance. These income support payments are well below the poverty line and have not been increased in real terms in 25 years. When you’re struggling to eat and find a safe place to sleep, it is difficult to get paid work, especially in the face of employment discrimination.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote communities are further discriminated against through the income support system. People in remote communities must comply with the Coalition government’s community development program, which imposes harsher requirements than non-remote programs and has vastly higher number of payment suspensions.

This year when the Morrison government said it would force people in the Northern Territory under income management to use the cashless debit card, we joined the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and the Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the Northern Territory in calling out this discrimination, which is still, unbelievably, embedded in policy today.

We also see racism in Australia today reflected in migrant poverty. The Acoss and UNSW Poverty in Australia report last year found that 17% of migrants born in a non-English speaking country lived in poverty. Comparatively for migrants born in a major-English speaking country, the poverty rate was 10%. The report notes that in December 2015, of all new migrants from north-west Europe, 82% were employed five to 10 years after arrival, compared with 38% of those migrating from North Africa or the Middle East.

Life is already hard for immigrants from non-English speaking backgrounds, especially those who have fled persecution, but the Coalition government has made it worse. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre recently released a distressing report into the impact of cuts to income support for families living in the community while seeking asylum. The result has been an influx of adults and children with absolutely nothing – no income, no housing, no paid work – reaching out for emergency housing and food banks.

Discrimination extends to disability

Discrimination extends beyond racism in Australia to ageism and discrimination against people with a disability, especially those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Our 2018 Poverty in Australia report shows that 38% of adults living in poverty have a disability. The research explains that this is likely an underestimate, as it does not take account of the extra costs of a disability when assessing whether people are living below the poverty line. The costs incurred by those with a disability can include adjustments to the home or workplace, costs of care, additional transportation costs such as taxis and medical and pharmaceutical costs.

Additionally many people with disabilities have difficulty finding employment. This leaves them forced to rely on income support payments, such as the disability support pension and Newstart allowance. As the disability threshold for the disability support pension has become stricter, often requiring the means for specialist assessment, more people with disabilities have been diverted to the intolerably low Newstart allowance.

At about $40 a day (less than $15,000 a year), the Newstart allowance is far too low for anyone, let alone for those with disability. We’ve long called for the disability support pension to be made less restrictive and for the rate of Newstart to be increased.

Increasing the rate of Newstart is the most effective way that we can immediately tackle poverty as a country. We’re calling for Newstart to be increased by $75 a week, backed by widespread support. While neither major party has committed to this increase, the Labor opposition agrees Newstart is too low and has promised a review in order to increase the rate if it wins government.

Politicians ignore the facts

For too long, it has been a political sport to vilify and demonise people who need to rely on income support. Politicians have persisted in generating tabloid media stories that paint people as lazy and drug- and alcohol-afflicted, and suggest welfare fraud is rife. The facts are of course ignored.

As Rick Morton recently highlighted, the largest groups of people needing to rely on Newstart are people over 45 years of age, who face pervasive age discrimination. There are 350,000 people on Newstart who are over 45, including 60,000 single people who are over 60, and our social security system has an extraordinarily low rate of fraud. During the last financial year, there were just 26 indictable appeals relating to Centrelink.

The problem we face in helping people move from income support into the labour market is not the character or behaviour of individuals but the nature of the labour market itself and the culture of discrimination and vilification.

Right now, there is just one job available for every eight people looking for more paid work. Our income support system needs to be fixed to provide adequate support for people while they search for paid work.

We don’t need a review to know that an increase to Newstart is urgent or that there’s more to do for single-parent families, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people born in non-English speaking countries and people with a disability.

We need to expose the ugly truths about the way misogyny, violence, racism, classism and discrimination keep certain groups of people in poverty. It’s clear these forces are completely out of place in modern Australia.

Our political leaders need to accept their responsibility to confront these forces and help support people struggling to move out of poverty. Politicians would do well to listen to people affected by poverty and get behind them, rather than stomping around, preaching about the “dignity of work” and blaming people for their own misfortune.

Cassandra Goldie is the chief executive officer of the Australian Council of Social Service

Reporting in this series is supported by VivCourt through the Guardian Civic Journalism Trust

Mohandas Gandhi

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

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