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We are being lied to about poverty - it's grim

A tragic indicator of increasing poverty and unemployment is the suicide toll, writes Gerry Georgatos

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A resident of Tent City sits on steps next to his bags before leaving Martin Place in Sydney. Photo: AAP/David Moir

17 November 2017

A tragic indicator of increasing poverty and unemployment is the suicide toll. Another indicator is an increasing prison population, along with the widening gap between the average worker and the top one per cent of earners, the many more hours people have to work to make ends meet, and how much money people live on after rent and mortgage payments.

The majority of Australians are unemployed or underemployed, while the majority of full-time employed Australians work longer hours than Australians on average ever have; most wake early, drive squinting in the rising sun and drive home squinting into the setting sun.

At the least, official poverty rates need to be doubled since data on unemployment and income markers is derived from inauthentic starting points.

Almost without fail, when there is a pronounced economic downturn, life stressors accumulate and depression rates increase, behavioural issues and aberrant behaviour increase 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?

Data is produced from certain manufactured premises; 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 per cent, so as to stop identifying people as living within means of various affordability when they actually live in poverty, unable to make ends meet.

Despite Australia being one of the richest nations in the world, it is witnessing an escalation in child poverty. It is accepted that 17 per cent of Australia's children live in poverty, more than 700,000, but in fact it's much higher.

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

If Australia authentically redefines its socioeconomic starting points, then there are at least six million Australians living in poverty and the proportion 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 we are officially told, or allowed to believe.

There is relative and there is 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 US, 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, this 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. 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.

Despite the dubious poverty lines Australia's institutions work from, in terms of proportion to population, Australia is second highest in the OECD for people living in poverty.

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 $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 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 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 are above 65 years of age and 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.

Homelessness should be a priority issue we need to be talking about and working towards solving. Poverty is a priority issue we need to be talking about and remedying. If we don't then a greater proportion than ever before of generations unborn will be into poverty and homelessness.

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, one in four is an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, while one in six is aged 12 years and younger – nearly 20,000 Australian children are homeless.

Officially, almost three million Australians are living below the poverty line, Tasmania has the highest proportion youth and coupled with unemployment, correlates with its horrific youth suicide rate.

On average eight Australians suicide each day with more than 200 Australians attempting suicide daily. The accumulation of economic stressors is taking a toll. Mental illness is not the only reason for suicide, it is isn't even the predominant reason.

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?

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 and territories.

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-a-half million Australians of working age who are unemployed and possibly higher, between three-and-a-half million to four million.

Ten per cent 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 that 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.

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. Seven per cent of the Kimberleys' 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.

I estimate that 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. 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.

Our muddle-minded governments continue to sell false narratives, hiding the grim realities and the real trends, and as a result there is no war on poverty.
There has never been truth telling on the extensiveness and depth on poverty. There is poverty on the horizon that will tear the nation, indenture many, make even more miserable the majority in wage slavery, shun the poorest who in time will become the majority.

If technology and innovation are not geared universally to the human existence in terms of common good, and if economies fail inalienable minimum standards universally including guarantee of home and the provision of health then humanity will be at odds with itself, in scarcity and paucity wars, brutal forces will be at play, and this all despite that we live it is said in the most wondrous innovative technological times.

If you need immediate assistance, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For other support you could also contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or www.beyondblue.org.au, the Black Dog Institute www.blackdoginstitute.com.au or talk to your GP, local health professional, or someone you trust.

* Gerry Georgatos is the nation's most prolific writer on suicide prevention; 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 firsthand with the critically vunerable. He is an anti-poverty researcher and campaigner.

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