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(Image via sprc.unsw.edu.au)

Despite 25 years of uninterrupted economic growth, poverty rates continue to soar and the welfare safety net is further eroded, writes Michael Clanchy.

ON SUNDAY, the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) officially released its new report, Poverty in Australia 2016

The ACOSS Report was compiled and produced in partnership with the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW and in conjunction with a number of major welfare agencies.

Some of its key findings were:

  • 2,990,300 people (13.3% of the population) were living below the poverty line, after taking into account their housing costs;
  • 731,300 children under the age of 15 years (17.4% of all children) were living below the poverty line;
  • 57.3% of people below the poverty line relied on social security as their main source of income;
  • the percentage of child poverty was increasing;
  • those most at risk were children in single families.

And all of this after 25 uninterrupted years of national economic growth.

Factors relevant to poverty

Most ordinary Australians are already intuitively aware of the many factors related to poverty through observation of the world around them: the high cost of housing, increasing insecurity and casualisation of employment, disability barriers, diminished wage growth at the lower end and the attack on work rights and conditions.

The ACOSS report also highlights the financial vulnerability and harm caused by the inadequacy and deterioration of the government social safety net in relation to income support.

The welfare debate

Dr Cassandra Goldie, CEO of ACOSS, treads very delicately when she suggests [page 5]: 

'We all should be able to feel secure in the knowledge that, regardless of what life throws up at us, including the inability to get a job, we will have enough income to afford shelter, food and other essentials.'  

She also makes a plea that poverty should not be seen as a reflection on the individual but a condition, the eradication of which must be a shared responsibility of the whole of society.

Of course, her words are more than reasonable — maybe too reasonable. A more assertive welfare rights approach may be desirable. Many believe that, in such a wealthy nation, the material deprivation of the poor is unconscionable. And when moral vilification of the poor becomes a crafted and coordinated strategy by a neoliberal Coalition Government, they are right to be incensed.

Fundamental hypocrisy in the welfare debate

Perhaps the deepest level of hypocrisy in the welfare debate is to be found is the chameleon that is welfare and an accurate analysis of who receives what in government largesse.

More and more citizens are becoming aware that, although the Australian Tax Office (ATO) collects revenue, it leads a double life. It also operates as a quasi-Centrelink provider of upper and middle-class welfare.

Last year, a leading economist, Saul Eslake, described the Australian tax system as 'a giant Swiss cheese, riddled with holes' to allow the more prosperous to pay less tax. The holes he refers to include tax concessions (on super, negative gearing, capital gains tax discounts, novated leasing and so on), trusts and other preferential tax arrangements .

Now, the currency at the ATO and at Centrelink happens to be identical. A dollar of tax concession buys exactly the same amount of bread as the dollar of Centrelink payment. And both dollars are alike in the sense that they are put in our pocket solely by a government act of grace and favour.

The difference, however, is that Centrelink dollar will usually be spent on basic food and shelter in the face of privation, while the ATO dollar may often be saved as surplus or spent on excess.

So, rest assured Australia. The privileged are never, ever forgotten when the Coalition Government formulates its list of financial considerations. The fruits of government welfare come in many different guises  and certainly not only to the poor.

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