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Inquiry to shine light on SA’s ‘inexcusable’ poverty rate

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South Australian welfare groups have called on the State Government to address what they say are inexcusable and entrenched realities facing low-income earners, as a Parliamentary inquiry gets underway to uncover the extent of poverty in the state.

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New research from the South Australian Council of Social Service reveals 131,945 people – including 22,350 children – live below the poverty line, with households in regional areas twice as likely to be in poverty than those in metropolitan Adelaide.

Of the households who fall below the poverty line, 45 per cent are renters and about half of those are in the private rental market.

The average income of South Australian households living below the poverty line in 2015-16 was $269.19 per week and the majority (41 per cent) were single adult households.

Of the South Australian households in poverty, 81 per cent had at least one member of the household receiving a pension or government benefit, with income support being the main source of income for 64 per cent of all households in poverty.

The figures form part of SACOSS’ landmark study into poverty in SA, which used a poverty line set at 50 per cent of the South Australian median household disposable income and data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The peak welfare group says the research, published today, provides the most accurate snapshot of poverty in the state, as previous poverty studies relied on national data to estimate the South Australian poverty line.

Last week welfare groups and individuals sent submissions to a Parliamentary Select Committee into poverty, which was established earlier this year by Greens MLC Tammy Franks.

In their submissions, the groups described poverty as an “entrenched and inexcusable” feature of South Australian society (Anti-Poverty Network SA), “a matter of national importance” (SACOSS), with support services that are “completely blocked” by a constant churn of people entering the support system (Shelter SA).

The welfare groups called on the State Government to lobby its federal counterpart for a raise to the Newstart income support payment and to address issues with housing, child protection, energy, transport and compulsory income management.

Raising the rate of Newstart

As a national campaign to increase the Newstart income support payment ramps up, South Australian welfare groups say the State Government needs to enter the debate.

According to SACOSS, the purchasing power of Newstart has declined in absolute terms over the past 20 years, leaving recipients struggling to afford their basic household needs.

SACOSS’ submission to the poverty committee states the value of the Newstart payment has declined relative to the general standard of living, from 24 per cent of the average South Australian wage in 1998 to 19 per cent this year.

The payment has not been raised in real terms since 1994 and it remains $178 per week below the pension.

Grassroots community advocacy group Anti-Poverty Network SA, which has spearheaded the campaign to raise the rate of Newstart in South Australia, says in its submission that the “inadequate” rate of Newstart has impacted recipients’ mental and physical health, as they are unable to afford fresh food, health care and heating and cooling bills.

“There can be no discussion of poverty at any level of government without discussing the low rate of Newstart Allowance,” Anti-Poverty Network SA’s submission states.

“State Government-funded community services, such as supports for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness, face growing levels of demand because of the low rate of (Newstart).

“State-funded health services see patients whose physical and mental wellbeing is harmed by lack of funds. (It also) impacts on food quality and insecurity, access to medicines and other resources, and social isolation and exclusion.”

The group recommends that the State Government lobby its federal counterpart for an immediate increase to Newstart by at least $100 a week, while SACOSS has called for a $75 per week increase.

Anglicare SA’s submission calls for a broad increase the Newstart payment and Youth Allowance “to curtail the poverty trap and provide a means for people to live with dignity and engage socially and economically, including in up-skilling and job seeking activities.”

Lack of affordable housing

According to Anglicare, only 3.6 per cent of properties in South Australia surveyed in the organisation’s 2017 Rental Affordability Snapshot were found to be affordable for households on income support payments.

Anglicare expressed particular concern for single-parent families, stating only one per cent of properties were affordable for single parents on the parenting income support payment.

South Australia’s peak housing organisation, Shelter SA, described a “triple financial burden” with “little relief in sight” for people trying to source affordable and secure housing.

According to the group, South Australia has lost more than 20,000 public housing properties over the past 20 years and the number of people receiving specialist homelessness services has “steadily risen” over the past few years.

“For people living on low incomes, the gap between paying 30 per cent of household income as rent, and the high cost of private rents is too large to achieve or sustain,” Shelter SA’s submission states.

“The number of people who are in need of crisis accommodation (is) also on the rise. The supply of emergency beds available frequently does not meet demand and increasingly, we are placing people in motels as a response to homelessness.

“The number of rough sleepers across South Australia has also increased. At our community engagement event in Victor Harbor, for example, workers from Goolwa said that there are more than 100 rough sleepers in their area.”

Shelter SA suggested a range of policy measures to address the housing crisis, including an urgent cease to the selling off of public housing and shifting the affordable housing portfolio to the infrastructure department.

The group also called for a review of what it described as an “out-dated” Public Intoxication Act, to address alleged anti-social behaviour on Hutt Street.

“Shelter SA acknowledges that people experiencing poverty and homelessness have urgent needs that must be addressed, however, the irony is that they need a safe place to rest overnight as well as a safe place to belong during the day,” its submission states.

“The gentrification of the city and new construction should not override the right of community services to operate from any particular location nor the right of people in need to access those services.”

SACOSS called on the State Government to “substantially invest” in public housing to stop the current decline in public housing stock.

It recommended that the Government ensure that all public and social housing meets universal design standards with high levels of accessibility and energy efficiency.

Anglicare SA also called for an increase in social and affordable housing, particularly for single-parent families, Aboriginal and culturally and linguistically diverse people, who the organisation said were over-represented as economically disadvantaged.

Uniting Communities said it was particularly concerned about the growing number of older women who were homeless or at risk of homelessness in the state.

The group has called for the establishment of a task force consisting of superannuation companies, property developers and aged care groups to work with the Government to reduce the number of older women entering homelessness.

Child protection

Welfare groups have described a concerning increase in the number of South Australian children entering poverty, which they say is putting pressure on the state’s child protection system.

InDaily previously reported that out-of-home care expenditure in South Australia has increased by an average of 16 per cent each year since 2006.

According to Anglicare SA, “South Australia’s largest foster care agency”, the link between poverty and child maltreatment is well-established.

The organisation says 65 per cent of young care leavers do not complete Year 12 and made up more than 60 per cent of the state’s youth homeless population. Nearly 50 per cent of young men with a care experience become involved with the juvenile justice system.

Anglicare SA and Uniting Communities recommended that the State Government invest in early-intervention programs and reintroduce an Early Intervention and Prevention Bill aimed at committing future governments to invest in child wellbeing.

Shelter SA directed its child protection focus to domestic violence, stating South Australia’s responses to domestic violence were “largely crisis-driven” and were leading to more children entering the child protection system.

The group has suggested new service delivery models that work with lower-risk children, young people and families experiencing crises, as well as male perpetrators of domestic violence.

Energy

According to SACOSS, energy costs are a major cost of living struggle for households on low incomes.

The group has called on the Government adopt a percentage-based energy concession, a move Energy Minister Dan van Holst Pellekaan has indicated he will work with SACOSS to review.

“The South Australian concession scheme has not kept pace with rising prices, is poorly targeted and needs to be replaced with a scheme that provides better support to low-income households struggling with energy bills,” SACOSS’ submission states.

Uniting Communities recommended the Government introduce subsidies for landlords to encourage them to install rooftop PV (solar panels) on rental properties, so that low-income private sector renters could have reduced energy costs.

Transport

While public transport concession fares are available to people on low-incomes, Anti-Poverty Network SA said access to public transport remains a “significant barrier” for those living below the poverty line.

“These groups experience great levels of financial hardship and often, because of the tight and precarious nature of their finances, (they) cannot afford to buy their fares upfront by purchasing a monthly pass, thus missing out on those savings,” its submission states.

The group said compounding this barrier was confusion about the requirements of Transport Concession Card, which entitles people on certain income support payments to cheaper fares on Adelaide Metro bus, train and tram services.

According to Anti-Poverty Network SA, many people on low-incomes believe their Health Care Card is sufficient evidence to prove their concession fare eligibility.

Because of this confusion, the group said many low-income people end up travelling on full-price fares or run the risk of receiving fines of up to $400 for travelling without proper proof of their concession status.

“We think requiring low-income people to apply for a Transport Concession Card to qualify for concession fares is needlessly bureaucratic, wasteful and means that many low-income people are paying far more for public transport than should be the case,” Anti-Poverty Network SA’s submission states.

“A Health Care Card is already evidence of acknowledgement of substantial need and a low income, issued by a Government body.”

The group recommended that, on top of scrapping the Transport Concession Card, the government extend seniors’ free public transport during the week to other low-income groups.

Compulsory income management

Uniting Communities raised concern about the Cashless Debit Card operating in Ceduna and the surrounding communities of Koonibba, Scotdesco, Yalata and Oak Valley, as well as the Basics Card operating in Greater Adelaide and the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands.

A recent report by the Australian National Audit Office found the Cashless Debit Card and other compulsory income management programs had not addressed their primary objective of reducing drug, alcohol and gambling problems in disadvantaged communities.

Uniting Communities’ submission to the parliamentary committee included testimonials from people in the communities currently serviced by the programs.

“We’re starting to feel like we’re back in the ration days when white people managed our lives and everything else and treated us like children. It’s the same now. We’re treated like children and so we can’t make decisions for ourselves. We’re moving backwards, not forwards,” one testimony reads.

“The card has made things harder. A lot of people in Ceduna have been through trauma, grief and loss – they’ve already been through a lot. Being on the Card just makes their lives that much harder,” another testimony states.

Uniting Communities called for the programs to be scrapped and replaced with increased funding for financial counselling, alcohol and other drug and gambling support services as well as culturally appropriate support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander South Australians.

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