Rich excuses and poor outcomes on poverty
This week marks the tenth anniversary of the establishment of Anti-Poverty Week. It is a timely opportunity to think about what experiencing poverty means in Australia in 2012 and more importantly, what can be done to address it.
Australia is undoubtedly doing very well on most economic and social indicators. We have had largely uninterrupted economic growth for the last 20 years, survived the GFC without too much pain, unemployment remains very low and high school completion rates are the highest they have ever been.
You could be forgiven for thinking that poverty is not an issue that should concern us greatly.
Yet this does not tell the full story. Research consistently shows that these headline indicators mask the fact there has been a group of Australians who have consistently missed out on these good times.
The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) report released earlier this week showed that 2.2 million Australians live below the poverty line and this includes 580,000 children. That’s one in six children growing up in poverty.
The Australian Social Inclusion Board’s 2012 How Australia is Faring report tells us that amongst those experiencing poverty there are 640,000 working age Australians who experience high levels of social exclusion. These people are effectively locked out of employment and trapped in a cycle of poverty.
The St Vincent de Paul Society’s 16,000 members, staff and volunteers witness the devastating impact of this poverty on families right across NSW on a daily basis. We see the pressure the increased cost of living is having on people as they turn to charities for assistance, sometimes for the first time in their lives.
We work with people who are homeless or families fleeing domestic violence who struggle to find safe and affordable accommodation to rebuild their lives and reconnect with their community.
We see the grinding impact that poverty has on families and witness the impacts of intergenerational poverty. Children growing up in communities where there is little opportunity and hope for a future, where even modest dreams of an education and job are out of reach.
The impacts of poverty on Australia’s Indigenous population are devastating. These communities experience a lower life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, higher unemployment rates, and a lack of access to health services and education.
This is not acceptable for a country as rich and as prosperous as ours. We should all take stock and consider what can be done to address these issues.
Housing costs are the single biggest driver of poverty and disadvantage in Australia. We should have a housing market that delivers for everyone. At the moment we have a housing market that produces huge gains for some, largely as a result of the tax incentives, and at the same timer drives others into poverty or keeps them in the cycle of homelessness.
This is an issue that we as a community need to confront. Blaming current Governments or saying one political party has responded more effectively than another is not helpful. Successive governments over decades have failed to adequately grapple with this issue.
The housing market we have at the moment is broken and it needs to be fixed.
Firstly, we must reform the range of taxation arrangements currently on offer. The $6 billion of negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions currently provided on an annual basis, encourage speculation in the housing market and drive up house prices. They also do little to increase the supply of housing as 92 per cent of the investment goes to existing housing stock.
One option is to limit the tax concessions to investments in affordable housing or the supply of new housing.
I refuse to believe that we are not capable of reforming these tax arrangements despite the political difficulty in doing so. Past and present government have achieved much greater reform.
Second, we need to review the Commonwealth rent assistance scheme. This program costs $3 billion a year and 75 per cent of those who receive it are still in housing stress. This money could be better targeted to those who are in most difficulty.
Finally, we must consider the role that public and community housing plays in our housing market. The reality is that for some people the ebb and flow of the private rental market is simply too brutal. Public and community housing provides security of tenure and rent set at a level that allows people to rebuild their lives. It provides a vital safety net and must be invested in at appropriate levels.
What is required is fundamental reform not tinkering and an environment in which the full range of options can be considered.
This week we have seen a range of statistics on poverty released that draw attention to the problems. It is now time for action and fixing the housing market is a good place to start. If we do not take bold and decisive action now it will condemn many thousands of future Australians to a life of poverty and disadvantage.
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