OPINION: In 2020, we’ve walked a mile in their shoes

OPINION: In 2020, we’ve walked a mile in their shoes

Author: Brad Webb, Executive Director People Care, (Samaritans and Anglican Care)

Written for the Newcastle Herald newspaper

Anti-Poverty Week 2020 (APW2020) kicked off on Sunday 11 October, with a message for all Australians.

Poverty exists. Poverty hurts us all. We can all do something about it.

The most recent pre-COVID data, from 2017-18, tells us that 3.24 million people (over one in eight Australians) were estimated to be living below the poverty line, after taking account of their housing costs. For children, the situation is worse with 774,000 children under the age of 15 (over one in six Australian children) were living below the poverty line. The average ‘poverty gap’ (the difference between the incomes of people in poverty in various types of families and the poverty line) was $282pw.

The numbers do not tell the full story. The lived experience of poverty is not being able to afford a meal. To be forced to choose between food and medical or dental treatment. To restrict children’s access to educational opportunities. To be living without heating or cooling because of the cost of utilities. To be staving off eviction because the rental arrears have got out of control. It is a life of day to day survival.

Despite these eye-watering numbers, poverty remains an abstract concept. Thanks to progressive media, and charitable agencies building awareness, we are all relatively familiar with the faces of poverty. The images of the homeless person on the street, the single parent facing homelessness, the hungry child and the isolated older person are all immediately recognisable.

Many Australians have been genuinely moved by these images. They have signed petitions, donated money, and filled the shelves of food pantries consistently and generously. For many years.

Yet, the majority of Australians have never experienced what it is to live in the shadow of poverty.

Until now.

2020 has been a year of challenges, uncertainty and hardship. Very few people have been spared from the impact on COVID-19 on the community, the economy, the health system, and the way of life they are accustomed to. Suddenly and indiscriminately, the abstract concept of poverty has become all too real.

The first hint of this reality was dramatically evident in the snaking lines of people, young and old, outside Centrelink offices in March. These people were no longer the predictable faces of poverty. These people were our friends, our colleagues, our parents, our children, ourselves.

Image courtesy of Newcastle Herald newspapers
Image courtesy of Newcastle Herald newspapers

On 28 August there were over 1.6 million Australians receiving unemployment payments, double the number of 800,000 in December 2019. August data from the August Internet Vacancy Index shows that there were 133,400 jobs advertised, equating to 12 people (receiving unemployment payments) for every internet vacancy.

The government response was quick and targeted in the form of the JobSeeker Coronavirus Supplement. ANU researchers have estimated that these temporary payments have reduced the number of people in poverty by 13% to 2.6 million. However, by December 2020, the reductions in income supports announced in July will increase poverty by one third to 3.5 million.

The work of Samaritans, and the other incredible agencies in our region, brings us face to face with the human impact of poverty. The entire social welfare sector is bracing itself for the influx of people in need once these income supports are reduced. Once again, we will be turning to the community for its support in meeting these needs. A community that, thanks to COVID, no longer sees poverty as an abstract concept.

An Essential Poll taken in June 2018 found 92% agreed with the statement, “In Australia, no one should go without basic essentials like food, healthcare, transport and power.”

My hope for Anti-Poverty Week 2020 is that our community will not only respond once again to our calls to support people in need but will think about how it can change the system that drives poverty.

You hold the power to change this every time you place a vote in the ballot box. Together we can encourage all political aspirants – major and minor parties, independents, state and commonwealth – to adopt policies that keep Australians out of poverty.

The ability to do this lies with knowledge, so in Anti-Poverty Week 2020, please listen and learn. And remember how close we all can be to the shadow of poverty.

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