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Opinion: Australians are lied to about extent of poverty and levels of unemployment

Poverty is mounting and it is a crisis that will tear at this nation

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Photo: AAP/Dan Himbrechts

05 June 2017

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, the economy in recession or depression, 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 were told we have globally comparative low levels of unemployment and underemployment, comparative low levels of government debt, and that we have good gross domestic product. Why then is the suicide toll increasing? Australians are not being told the truth about 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. You have to be officially looking for work to be considered unemployed. There are millions of Australians who need work, want it, but languish in poverty, have given up, broken lives turned to ruined lives. 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 per cent so as to stop identifying people as if 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, and homelessness at the least we would have to immediately double the numbers.

There are at least six million Australians living in poverty, not nearly three million alone. At least one quarter of the Australian population lives in poverty – and 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.

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. The US's response to poverty is prisons and gated communities. Nearly one per cent of the American population – two and a half million Americans – are locked up; one in four of the world's prisoners. The underclass of homelessness in the US is a shame beyond words. The wealthy 'Pollyannas' hide in gated and monitored 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 it 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, less 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 such a family at $1,400 per week. The Henderson Poverty Line estimates nearly 14 per cent of Australians living in poverty and 18 per cent of Australia's children. I estimate at least one quarter and more likely 35 per cent of all Australians live below the poverty line and 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 of 2.6 occupants per household, but the one in 200 Australians who are homeless, more than 100,000, of whom thousands live on the streets, have no chance of ever affording a house. In fact I estimate that one in 100 Australians are 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 per cent of Australian households, the majority of them above 65 years of age, own their home outright, so there is no mortgage remaining, while 36 per cent of Australian households have mortgage repayments.

Private renters – those who pay rent to a private landlord – are 24 per cent 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. According to my estimates you can double the official figures and rates to get the real story.

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.

Fifteen per cent of Tasmanians – 75,000 – live below the poverty line but according to my estimations you can double that to 30 per cent – 150,000 Tasmanians. It is agreed that 15,000 Tasmanian children live in poverty, likely to be 30,000. Tasmania's jobless are stated at about seven per cent but few would argue with me that the real figure is at least 15 per cent. Tasmania's youth suicide is the highest in the nation: effectively 50 suicides per 100,000 population annually. 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? 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, in improving access to education and employment opportunities and in increasing welfare and pension payments.

The Tasmanian suicide crisis is higher outside Hobart, in regional towns and communities, and correlates with the rates of those living under the poverty line and with the regional unemployment rates. It's the same story across the nation but poverty, unemployment and suicide can be much more easily addressed in the nation's smallest state than in the larger ones where suicide rates are high and the increasing poverty and joblessness pernicious and endemic.
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 has been stated over and again that for the last half century there has been pronounced economic growth of such nature that we are envied globally, yet the overall narrative is one of persistently increasing poverty. If it is true that the nation has generated strong economic growth for a long time then it is an indictment of the nation that we have not reinvested a significant return from that revenue into the needs of the most vulnerable.
The real story that the official national figures are hiding from us is this: the unemployment rate is not five, six or seven per cent but it is above 20 per cent, maybe even 35 per cent. Officially it is argued that about 750,000 Australians are out of work but in reality it's around two and half million Australians of working age who are unemployed, and possibly higher; between three and half million to four million.

Ten per cent of Australia's labour force is seriously under-employed. More than a 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 per cent to the 20 per cent who are unemployed, that's a 30 per cent national unemployment rate. Among the youth labour force, underemployment is proportionately higher.

In 1963, Australia's economy hit a significant downturn, and a significant proportion of the waves of migrants found little to no work, and the national suicide rate peaked, the highest it has ever been, 17.3 suicides per 100,000. In the 1990s economic downturn, out of control interest rates on mortgages correlated with spikes in the suicide rates, in with the last several years of economic downturns with a similar impact. 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 10 of the nation's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are in the Kimberley. Seven per cent of the Kimberley's population is homeless, nearly 100 per cent 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, with approximately 40 per cent of the nation's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders live below the poverty line. Nearly 100 per cent of the nation's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are of people from within the 40 per cent living below the poverty line.

The majority of Australian suicides are intertwined with narratives of poverty that 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 people.

*Gerry Georgatos is the nation's most prolific writer on suicide prevention; and a suicide prevention and prison reform researcher and advocate with the non-tertiary Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. He is a member of national projects to further develop suicide prevention, and well-being and education programs in prisons. Gerry's research has a focus on trauma recovery and restorative approaches. He works first-hand with the critically vulnerable and marginalised.

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