Our 'national shame': 730,000 Aussie kids living in poverty

The number of Australian children living in poverty is rising, with more than 730,000 children now below the breadline in what has been described as a "national shame" and a dismal reflection on the country's politicians.

Major new research shows 17.4 per cent of all Australians aged under 15 are living in poverty, an increase of 2 per cent over the decade to 2014.

Those most at risk are children in single parent families, who are three times more likely to be living in poverty. Just over 40 per cent of children being raised by a single parent live below the poverty line.

The Poverty in Australia 2016 report – prepared by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) in collaboration with the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW – found nearly 3 million Australians live in poverty, which is defined as 50 per cent of the national median income.

Almost 30 years after former prime minister Bob Hawke's 1987 speech in which he declared he wanted no Australian child living in poverty by 1990, the report shows Australia's policymakers have not only failed to make progress but are actually going backwards.

poverty in Australia graph

ACOSS chief executive Cassandra Goldie said the new figures should be an "urgent appeal" to senators to reject further cuts to youth and family payments that are being considered in the upper house.

"Unfortunately, our political leaders often seem more concerned with providing the next tax cut than with reducing poverty and inequality," she said.

Dr Goldie said the overall picture was one of persistent and entrenched poverty across the community.

"It is a national shame that after 25 years of consecutive economic growth we have not done better at changing this trajectory and ensuring our most precious resource, our children, are given the best possible start in life," she said.

Jessica Russell, 25, is a single mother of two boys, Ryan aged 2 and Andrew aged 1, in the Sydney suburb of St Clair.

She was forced to live off her Centrelink single parent payment after her hairdresser employer let her go when they found out she was pregnant. Ms Russell barely has enough to cover her $380-a-week private rent.

"I get upset when my children don't have the same things that other children might have," she said."I live week to week to provide for them. I do what I can and always put them first so they don't go without. I go without haircuts and new clothes so I can feed my sons and give them the best start in life."

Ms Russell said young parents were struggling to get jobs. Before she had children she also worked in childcare and hopes to enter midwifery when her children are a bit older.

"There are moments when covering all the costs make me very stressed but I try to take a step back and figure out how I can make it all work," she said. "I have to, I'm a mum. I'm grateful they have a roof over their heads and they're healthy."

Jessica Seaman, 23, and her partner Jack Butler, 21, had to live with a family member in Sydney's Emu Heights after the birth of their first child.

Mr Butler is the primary carer for Ms Seamen, who has epilepsy and is due to have surgery next month. They are both receiving Centrelink social security payments including Partner Pay and Youth Allowance."We're finding it difficult to find our own place and get our life on track," Ms Seaman said.

"It's a very stressful situation. We've applied for many private rentals in the past four weeks but it's very competitive. The rental prices are high and we've been declined numerous times.

"Our son is our priority and with little money in our pockets, we're surviving on the bare minimum. We're getting used to going without. We know for sure that there'll be no Christmas presents this year. Who knows what will happen next year."

Ms Seaman left school in year 8 to work full time at McDonald's but stopped working five years ago because of health issues. Mr Butler left school in year 10 after his brother and grandmother died and he began suffering mental illness.

Melbourne woman Vicky Vacondios is a single mother of three children who escaped domestic violence. She moved to the country for a spell but when she returned to the city she found it difficult to find a rental property.

"We were homeless for nearly three months, my children and I," she said.

Ms Vacondios is now trying to support her children with Newstart payments while she studies to get a job in the homelessness sector.

"It's going to be a real struggle but I'm just looking forward and thinking it'll be worth it," she said. "It's going to get better in a few years. I don't want to give up and I want to teach my kids perseverance."

The latest Poverty in Australia report, which is the fifth of its kind, also shows women are still more likely to live below the poverty line because of lower employment rates, lower wages and because they take on a greater caring role for children and other family members.

The poverty rate for women is at 13.8 per cent, compared to 12.8 per cent for men.

The vast majority of people below the poverty line were in rental housing (59.7 per cent), with most living in private rental housing (44.2 per cent). Only 15.5 per cent of people living below the poverty line were homeowners.

For those over the age of 65, there is some good news; poverty rates have declined since 2007-08, and this has been attributed in part to the pension increase in 2009.

People on welfare are six times more likely to experience poverty (36.1 per cent) compared to salary and wage earners (6 per cent), primarily because many income support payments are set below the poverty line.

More than half (55 per cent) of people on Newstart, which pays just $38 a day, live below the line.

These payments are indexed to CPI only, resulting in lower growth than pension payments that are indexed to wages growth, and a relative decline against community living standards over time, the report says.

However the report shows 32 per cent of those who live below the poverty line do have paid work.

"The evidence is clear that a job does not guarantee an adequate income and we must look at both social security settings, labour market policies and jobs growth if we are to successfully address poverty," Dr Goldie said.

The research was led by internationally renowned academic, Professor Peter Saunders at the University of NSW.

Professor Saunders said children who grew up in poverty would "bear the scars of unmet need, exclusion and limited opportunities" into adulthood.

In 2014, the poverty line for a single adult was $426.30 a week. For a couple with children it was $895.22 a week.The research was supported by the Australian Communities Foundation, St Vincent de Paul Society, Mission Australia and the Salvation Army.

The story Our 'national shame': 730,000 Aussie kids living in poverty first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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