Indigenous Australia

Australia's unreported poverty line

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We are being lied to — official poverty rates need to be doubled since data on unemployment and income markers is derived from inauthentic starting points, says Gerry Georgatos.

A TRAGIC INDICATOR of increasing poverty and unemployment is the suicide toll.

There are various contributing factors to suicide but, almost without fail, when there is a pronounced economic downturn, life stressors accumulate and the suicide toll spikes.

Despite the global financial crises, Australians were told we’d get through them, that the Australian economy is one of the world’s best. We are told we have globally comparative low levels of unemployment and underemployment, comparatively low levels of government debt and that we have good gross domestic product. But why, then, is the suicide toll increasing? Australians are not being told the truth about Australian poverty and unemployment.

We are being lied to. Data is produced from certain manufactured premises, from disingenuous, inauthentic starting points. Not all the unemployed are being counted. If you work one hour per week, you are defined as "employed". That’s more than outrageous, it’s diabolical.

A number of "poverty lines" have been enumerated but the income markers of these poverty lines should be increased by at least 50%, so as to stop identifying people as living within means of various affordability when they actually live in poverty, unable to make ends meet.

If we can begin to be honest about the markers of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, in the least we would have to immediately double the numbers of the poor, unemployed and homeless.

By this measure, there are at least six million Australians living in poverty and the proportion in poverty will continue to increase long into the foreseeable future. There are closer to two million Australian children living in poverty rather than the 740,000 children that we are officially told, or allowed to believe, are living in poverty.

There is relative and absolute poverty. Relative poverty is a measure contextualising annual income to cost of living demands and therefore has to do with low-income levels and the accumulation of cost of living stressors. Absolute poverty describes families that are not able to provide basic necessities, such as housing, food and clothing.

Poverty is mounting and it is a crisis that will tear at this nation. In time, there will be no more lies, no more spin and, instead, there shall culminate a divided society — fractured, with more effort spent on separating peoples. This is already the case in the U.S., where the response to poverty is prisons (2.6 million Americans are locked up) and gated communities.

Australian pensioners will increasingly make up a significant proportion of Australian poverty. Today, a pension averages about $20,000 a year and it is more than tough going — it is punishing. For many, there is psychologically damaging and irrecoverable trauma. The aged pension is, in fact, poverty. In 20 years, the pension will be worth the equivalent of $70 per week comparative to today’s value — dirt-poor living. Unless Australians have their home paid off by their retirement and one million dollars saved in superannuation, they will live their last stretch of life in poverty. With the passing of each year, fewer Australians will be on track to achieve this and, soon enough, it will be near impossible for the majority to come anywhere near close.

The Henderson Poverty Line measures a family of two adults, one who is working, with two dependent children. The Melbourne Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research reviews the Henderson Poverty Line income and cost of living quotients. A family of four with an annual income less than $1.000 a week are living below the poverty line. In my estimations, with today’s demands, including mortgage and rent markers, such a family is still doing it tough with $1,800 per week — the majority of Australians. I measure poverty for the family of four at $1400 per week. The Henderson Poverty Line estimates nearly 14% of Australians living in poverty and 18% of Australia’s children. I estimate at least one quarter and more likely 35 per cent of all Australians living below the poverty line. I estimate that, as a nation, we are approaching nearly one in two children living in poverty.

Australia has nine million private dwellings, with an average 2.6 occupants per household, but the one in 200 Australians who are homeless, more than 100,000, of whom tens of thousands live on the streets and have no chance of ever affording a house. In fact, I estimate that one in 100 Australians is homeless and that this proportion will increase to one in 50 by 2030.

Then there are the "houseless"  — those who aspire to secure a mortgage. The homeless are those who have no chance of securing even a rental. According to the Institute of Health and Welfare, 33% of Australian households, the majority of them above 65 years of age, own their home outright, so there is no mortgage remaining, while 36% of Australian households have mortgage repayments. Private renters – those who pay rent to a private landlord – are 24% of the Australian population.

Australia provides more than 400,000 social houses, while around 170,000 families remain on the waiting lists. If social housing were to disappear, there would be hundreds of thousands – in fact, millions – more homeless Australians.

Anyone living below the Henderson Poverty Line has little chance of affording a private home. Those who are in some form of homelessness – living in overcrowded dwellings or crisis accommodation or toughing it out on the streets – have just about zero chance because the majority of the chronically homeless are dirt poor. Many have degenerated to mental health conditions or disordered thinking.

Any serious conversation about housing those on the waiting lists requires the development of more social housing — in fact, 170,000 public rental houses need to be built.

Dramatically reducing acute homelessness for those sleeping rough requires tailor-made support to address the negative issues and traumas that have alienated them to the streets. Nearly one in three of the chronic homeless are born overseas and one in four is an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. One in six of the chronically homeless is aged 12 years and younger – nearly 20,000 Australian children aged 12 and younger are homeless.

Officially, almost three million Australians are living below the poverty line. Tasmania has the highest proportion. According to my estimates, you can double the official figures and rates to get the real story. However, Tasmania’s higher proportion of poverty and of youth unemployment correlates with its horrific youth suicide rate.

If you are a child of a single parent family, you have a nearly one in two chance of living your life in poverty, compared to coupled families where you have a one in eight chance.

Mental health support alone and resilience selling are not enough — there has to be real hope on the horizon, the capacity to improve life circumstances. But what government will sponsor the authentic? Don’t hold your breath. Instead, we will hear of national, state and territory mental health and suicide prevention plans, and other baloney. These abstract efforts cost less to "implement", as opposed to building more public housing, or improving access to education and employment opportunities and increasing welfare and pension payments.

There are about 80 suicides each year in Tasmania — out of more than 3,000 suicides nationally. If we cannot reduce suicides in Tasmania then we will fail to do so elsewhere across the nation.

It’s the same story across the nation, but I have picked out Tasmania for this article, because poverty and unemployment and suicide can be much more easily addressed in the nation’s smallest state than in the larger states. 

The real story that the official national figures are hiding from us is this: the unemployment rate is not 5, 6 or 7% but it is above 20%, maybe even 35%. Officially, it is argued that about 750,000 Australians are out of work but, in reality, it’s around two-and-a-half million Australians of working age who are unemployed and possibly higher, between three-and-a-half million to four million. The suggestion that you are "employed" if you work more than "one" hour per week is bullshit.

10% of Australia’s labour force is seriously under-employed. More than 1.1 million under-employed Australians want more paid hours, to meet the cost of living, to be able to provide adequate food on the family table but can’t get the hours. If we add the 10% to the 20% who are unemployed, that’s a 30% national unemployment rate. Among the youth labour force, underemployment is proportionately higher.

I have long argued that the staggering, harrowing rates of suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are borne from a narrative of obscene poverty. In 2014, I disaggregated the suicide rate among Aboriginal peoples in the Kimberley to more than 70 per 100,000 — one of the highest in the world. It’s now nearing 80 suicides per 100,000. Nearly one in ten of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are in the Kimberley. 7% of the Kimberleys' population is homeless, nearly 100% of the homeless is of Aboriginal people — translating to one in eight of the region’s Aboriginal people as homeless. More than one in two of the region’s Aboriginal people live below the poverty line. I estimate that 40% of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders live below the poverty line. Nearly 100% of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are of people from within the 40% living below the poverty line.

The majority of Australian suicides are intertwined with narratives of poverty. Poverty strips away vital protective factors, erodes resilience, makes for drudgery and unhappiness. The tipping points, the triggers are many — including relationship breakdowns, disordered thinking, anxieties, bullying, violence, substance abuse. Those living in poverty invest much into a relationship, whether family or friends. For some to lose a relationship is to lose everything.

Australia must own up to its increasing poverty or continue to betray its very people.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and restorative justice and prison reform expert with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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