The fact that one in eight people across Australia are currently living in poverty is a “political choice” made by the Albanese government, critics say, as cost of living pressures continue to turn the screw on households around the country with no support in sight.
According to a new report from the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), the poverty rate has risen to 14.4 percent of the adult population, or about 3.3 million people, along with as many as 16.6 percent of children, who continue to “fall behind society” as average incomes fall.
At the centre of the report lies a focus on the end of temporary income support measures introduced through the COVID-19 pandemic, which offered people living in poverty a short glimpse into living life with basic necessities, only to have it all fall away.
The added support afforded those receiving welfare payments a life as much as $361 above the poverty line in June 2020, when income support payments were increased. By April last year, the Coronavirus Supplement, which was initially $275 a week, made way for a minor weekly bump of $25 across all payments.
Greens spokesperson for social services, Janet Rice, told VICE that Labor’s inaction on raising the rate of income support payments, following years of campaigning for it while in opposition, is a “political choice”.
“Everyone deserves the right to live in safety with a roof over their head, food in their cupboard, medical care and hot showers. Families are having to decide which of these they will have to sacrifice right now,” Rice said.
“Poverty is a political choice and the Labor government is choosing tax cuts for the wealthy instead of making life easier for these families.”
Next week, a Senate Committee inquiry into the “nature and extent” of poverty will have its first hearing in Victoria, as the government continues to swat away questions about cost of living relief and increased welfare payments just over a week out from its first budget.
The inquiry was announced in early September, and will investigate the rates and drivers of poverty in Australia, including the relationship between economic conditions and poverty; its impact on employment, housing, health and education; and, the ways it impacts different demographics and communities.
It will also look at the relationship between income support payments and poverty, and the “mechanisms to address and reduce poverty”.
Welfare advocates and groups from across the social sector, however, say the government has all the evidence it needs to act.
Jeremy Poxon, a spokesperson for the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) and welfare recipient, told VICE that even though there is growing support for stronger welfare measures, he fears it’ll take the government too long to act.
“People can’t eat these reports, people can’t eat these inquiries,” Poxon said.
“The solutions are already there. All the groups representing welfare recipients are very clear and decisive on what needs to happen; reports like this make it clear that these people just need to be given money immediately.”
He and the members he represents feel like they have no choice but to take action. The AUWU is set to stage a protest in Adelaide next week, where they will travel to the electorate office of social services minister, Amanda Rishworth, with hopes to reach an agreement.
On the release of ACOSS’s report on Friday, Rishworth told NCA newswire that the Albanese government will assess the rate “budget by budget”, just not this October.
“We have inherited a trillion dollars of Liberal debt. We understand Australians are doing it tough, but any measures need to be considered in the full budget context,” Rishworth said.
The Albanese government faces serious fundraising challenges over the next couple of years. It has locked itself into tax cuts set to blow a $750 billion hole in the budget over the next decade, overwhelmingly targeted at the nation’s top income earners, and demurred at the prospect of introducing any new taxes.
ACOSS chief executive Dr Cassandra Goldie said Australia’s rising poverty said the organisation’s report offers the government a clear strategy that could lift millions out of poverty. The rising rate, she said, should be a source of “great shame” for the nation.
“Increasing JobSeeker and related payments to at least $73 a day is a crucial first step, as well as an increase to Commonwealth Rent Assistance and a substantial investment in social housing so that there are enough affordable homes for people on the lowest incomes,” Dr Goldie said.
“As it develops its approach to a well-being budget, the Federal Government should prioritise including specific targets and strategies for reducing poverty to ensure that no one is left behind.”
Follow John on Twitter.