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Discussion

The Salvation Army has an extensive history working with individuals, families and communities who are impacted by poverty, deprivation and exclusion. The Salvation Army maintains a strong advocacy position and supports a just and equitable approach to addressing the causes and effects of disadvantage and entrenched poverty. The Economic and Social Impact Survey 2015 is a snapshot of the experiences, attitudes and realities of poverty for the individuals and families who The Salvation Army supports.

This research illustrates the struggles of people with limited economic and social resources, and high levels of deprivation and disadvantage. The research contains confronting insights into the financial strain from expending the majority of their income on housing and the challenge to maintain an adequate standard of living with minimal income and resources. For many people, this means they need to seek support through The Salvation Army’s services for food and basic necessities. ESIS 2015 confirms the continuing disadvantage of this group as outlined in previous reports.

This year, The Salvation Army further examined respondents’ experiences regarding a number of key issues. These included: 

  • Housing affordability
  • Financial resources
  •  Barriers to employment
  • Effects of financial hardships on parents and their children; and
  •  Emotional and social wellbeing.

In particular, three main themes emerged from the study. These included:

  1. Inadequacy of income support and insufficient financial resources
  2. Entrenched poverty and experiences of severe and extreme deprivation
  3. Access to suitable and affordable housing

The context in which this survey has taken place remains one of uncertainty, given the impact from regulatory and funding changes within the community sector. The Salvation Army is concerned about the social impact of these changes on issues such as housing affordability, unemployment, income support measures, and children living in poverty.

The Salvation Army maintains that the current social policy setting and social systems do not provide adequate support to impoverished individuals and families, as this marginalised cohort continues to remain trapped in entrenched in poverty.

Housing and homelessness

Housing affordability remains a national issue. Increasing private rental costs, competition for properties and diminishing public housing stock leave few options for those on low incomes. Survey respondents encountered repeated pressure and housing stress connected with inadequate economic resources. Results confirmed that respondents paid $180 per week on accommodation expenses,49 which represented 59%50 of their total income per week. This is twice the common benchmark of 30% used to measure housing stress in Australia.51 Many respondents reported that high rental costs, inadequate and sub-standard housing conditions contributed to the cost of living pressures that caused them significant financial stress. Seventy-eight per cent of respondents in private rental experienced extreme housing stress.52 A renewed effort by government and the community is urgently needed to ensure that every Australian has access to safe, secure and affordable housing.

ESIS revealed 13% of respondents were homeless, significantly higher compared to the national average. On any given night in Australia, 1 in 200 people are homeless (in excess of 105,000 individuals). In 2013–14, an estimated 254,000 Australians accessed specialist homelessness services, an increase of 4% from 2012–13.53 Furthermore, in 2013–14, the number of clients couch surfing or living without tenure increased 26% compared to 2012.54 Thus, the demand for specialist services and crisis accommodation continues to increase and requires adequate resourcing to effectively provide a continuum of housing responses to those in need.

"I am house hunting [because] couch surfing isn't much fun. I have a 5-year-old that resides with her dad temporarily till I get a home of my own."

Poverty and disadvantage

In a recent report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, poverty was described as a long-term issue, with approximately 25% of people who exit poverty returning to being poor within two years.55 Groups at high risk of falling into long-term poverty include: individuals who do not complete secondary education, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, those over 65, those with a long-term health problem or disability and those who live in unemployed households. Similarly, our research also reflected that these subgroups were at high risk of remaining trapped in poverty and long-term disadvantage.

In Australia, 2.5 million people live below the poverty line (including more than 603,000 children).56 The Salvation Army is concerned that recipients of income support live below the poverty line as income supports do not meet daily costs of living. Income support allowances have not increased in line with inflation, which only compounds issues of deprivation, entrenched poverty and the extent of income inequality among disadvantaged groups.57 The Salvation Army advocates for an increase in the current income support allowances to provide an adequate standard of living.

Our research demonstrates that individuals continue to experience financial hardship, and have been forced to cut down on basic necessities (75%) and rely on the support of community organisations just to survive (60%). Furthermore, after accommodation expenses, respondents were forced to live on $125 per week,58 just $17.86 per day. Those receiving Newstart allowance were even more disadvantaged and reported to have as little as $9.57 a day to live on. This hardship is further reinforced by 56% of respondents indicating they felt they would be worse off in the coming 12 months. The question for the Australian community is, “Why are circumstances not changing for individuals and groups who are the most marginalised and disadvantaged in our community?”

"The cost of living increases constantly while [my] income remains the same, so I'm getting poorer by the day."

Deprivation

Research results provide an insight into the levels of deprivation experienced by 2,406 adults and 2,864 children and young people in their households. Overall, 87% of households and 60% of children experienced severe levels of deprivation and went without more than five essential items in life.59 Fifty-three per cent of respondents were single persons’ households with children, which proved to be one of the most disadvantaged subgroups. Respondents were unable to afford essential items for their children, including: out-of-school activities (65%), an internet connection (62%) and fresh fruit and vegetables every day (34%). Without these basic life essentials, The Salvation Army is concerned that the future prospects for these children are likely to diminish and lead to increased poverty, lack of opportunity and chronic disadvantage. 

Many respondents took the opportunity to comment about the level of financial assistance and help provided by the government.  Individuals reliant on income support reported that the levels of payment were inadequate for them to maintain a basic standard of living. Recipients of Newstart allowance, Disability Support Pension and Parenting payments were the most disadvantaged, managing with the least amount of money to live on per week. These individuals experienced the highest levels of deprivation and social exclusion.

The Salvation Army is concerned that issues regarding poverty and deprivation are often reduced to questions of a job or welfare crisis. However, this is also an ethical question about the type of society Australians want. The foundations of a civil society include social inclusiveness, adequate support for those who are disadvantaged, personal safety, empowerment and the ability for all members to engage fully in society. However, for many respondents there was a disconnection and marginalisation from their communities.

Employment

Respondents in the ESIS 2015 survey indicated that their situations have not changed significantly in the past 12 months and they felt isolated and excluded from the mainstream community. Yet, they reflected a desire to have the opportunities and experiences the rest of the community has, such as employment opportunities, adequate housing and the ability to provide for their families. Many experienced significant barriers to achieve these basic outcomes. For those seeking employment, many faced challenges entering the workforce and sustaining long term employment. The majority of respondents identified a lack of relevant skills and experience, current physical and/or mental health issues, and parenting/caring responsibilities as barriers to preventing them seeking employment. In addition, poverty, poor housing, lack of transport, lack of flexible work opportunities, cost of childcare, limited educational and work based experiences were also significant impediments to securing and maintaining employment. The current structures supporting employment do not appear to take into account some of the complexities and challenges faced by these marginalised and disadvantaged individuals. In fact, in some instances they actually impede rather than facilitate employment opportunities.

Asylum seekers and refugees

ESIS 2015 explored the experiences of asylum seekers/refugees currently living in Australia. Despite low sample numbers (n= 29, 1% of all respondents), this cohort represented views and experiences of serious levels of disadvantage and marginalisation. Under visa conditions, the vast majority of asylum seekers have no rights to work or study, and receive little or no income support. The results indicate an urgent need to provide appropriate financial resources and social connections to these families to address their fundamental human rights and reduce the levels of deprivation experienced by their children.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples

Similar experiences and levels of disadvantage and deprivation were also reflected for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples. Sixteen per cent of respondents (n=365) identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples. These figures are more than five times higher than the proportion of the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples population in Australia (3%).60 The Salvation Army is concerned that Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to endure socio-economic disadvantage, marginalisation and entrenched poverty. As a result, The Salvation Army supports processes led by Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples to inform economic and social policy development to reduce entrenched disadvantage and support improved outcomes for all Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Personal wellbeing

In terms of personal wellbeing, respondents faired very poorly compared to the wider Australian population. Across each domain, respondent’s experienced significantly lower scores on Personal Wellbeing Index61 (45.93) compared to the National average (75.25), by 29.32 points. These results indicated that respondents have significantly poorer quality of life, standard of living and overall life satisfaction, as compared to the wider population. The most notably affected were respondents with no fixed or transitory accommodation scoring 28.17 (including homelessness, couch surfing, temporary tenure). Respondents who were homeless62 also experienced high levels of social exclusion (74%), poor social connectedness (46%) and poor social support (60%). These results confirm that adequate housing is fundamental to personal wellbeing, providing a sense of stability, security and permanency. Individuals and families who are homeless are deprived of these fundamentals.

Overall, effects of financial distress were observed across a range of cohorts. Furthermore, respondents identified factors that contributed to their experiences of financial stress, such as housing affordability, challenges of single parenthood and barriers to employment. These are structural issues that respondents had little control over or influence to change. The degree of financial distress was further compounded by personal circumstances, such as lack of support from partner or family, death of loved ones, alcohol and/or drugs or mental health issues, and care responsibilities. In general, these circumstances had negative emotional impacts on respondents which led to feelings of extreme loneliness, low self-esteem, desperation and loss of hope.

49. Median per week
50. Equals accommodation expenses divided by rough estimate income.
51. NB: Measures of housing affordability is on the lowest 40% of households by comparable incomes.
52. Extreme housing stress is defined as respondents using >50% of income.
53. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. Specialist homelessness services: 2013–2014. Cat. no. HOU 276. Canberra: AIHW. Accessed 22 April 2015, viewed here.
54. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. Specialist homelessness services: 2013–2014. Cat. no. HOU 276. Canberra: AIHW. Accessed 22 April 2015, viewed here
55. The Committee for Economic Development of Australia (2015). Addressing Entrenched Disadvantage in Australia (2015). Accesses 21 April 2015, viewed at http://adminpanel.ceda.com.au/FOLDERS/Service/Files/Documents/26005~CEDAAddressingentrencheddisadvantageinAustraliaApril2015.pdf
56. ACOSS (2013). Poverty in Australia 2012 (3rd ed.). Australian Council of Social Services. Accessed 25 November 2014, viewed here.     
57. Australian Government Productivity Commission (2013). Deep and persistent disadvantage in Australia. Accessed 19 August 2014, viewed here.
58. Median per week
59. Essential items for adults are defined according to indicators of disadvantage developed by Saunders, Naidoo and Griffiths, (2007) and The UNICEF Child Deprivation Index. Severe deprivation is defined as missing out on 5 or more essential items.
60. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011, Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, cat. No. 3238.0.55.001. Accessed 19 August 2014, viewed here.
61. PWI categories include: Standard of living, health, achievement, personal relationships, safety, community, future security, spirituality/religion, overall life satisfaction.
62. Homeless is defined as living on the streets, car, make shift dwelling.