We live in an affluent city. We have some of the highest incomes in Australia (and the world), we have low levels of unemployment and high levels of educational attainment. Newspaper headlines regularly spruik the strength of Canberra’s economy and the strength of our housing market.
Affluence does not mean we are immune from the impacts of poverty. While this issue struggles to get the focus it deserves, we are slowing coming to realise that the benefits of living in this community are not equally shared. This has been a long process – it took until the late 1990s for our community to even acknowledge we had poverty in Canberra. The findings of the inquiry into the nature and extent of poverty that was commissioned by the then Carnell Government and conducted in partnership with ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS) in 1999 and 2000 was a powerful wakeup call for government, community and business that action needed to be taken to ensure that everyone could access the benefits of this affluent city.
In the 17 years that have gone by since this first recognition, programs and initiatives have been introduced but the issue of poverty and disadvantage continues to be an alarming reality for groups in our community. In recent months we have heard that there was a 300% increase in demand for our safe shelter homelessness program this winter, community advocates are raising significant concerns about increasing utility costs and we are learning about an increased demand for our emergency relief services.
Today, around one in eight of Canberrans, or 28,600 people, are among the most disadvantaged 20 per cent Australians. As identified in the early days of inquiry, it is still the case that the experience of disadvantage can, in fact, be exacerbated by our very affluence, as high incomes drive the cost-of-living, a strong housing market creates significant housing stress for many, and the costs of essential services can be impossible to meet for those on low and fixed incomes.
As such, Canberra’s participation in the nationwide Anti-Poverty Week in a year where the issue of ‘hidden poverty’ is the theme, is particularly important. This week of activities and events is designed to strengthen our community’s understanding of the issue and impacts and encourage discussion, research, and solutions to deal with this seemingly intractable issue.
From 15 to 21 October, there will be a wide range of events and activities to get involved in. These are opportunities to increase your understanding of the issue, and support organisations that are working to reduce poverty and disadvantage.
The kick-off event will occur at Marymead’s Fete on Saturday 14 October where the Brumbies will join with OzHarvest Canberra to cook budget meals from 10:30 am. On Tuesday, ACTCOSS will host a trivia night at the Phoenix with Chris Endrey, where participants will be tested on their knowledge about some of the lesser-known aspects of our city, the Territory and diverse community. On Wednesday morning, YWCA Canberra will host a breakfast with a number of ACT Director Generals who will explore the issue of hidden poverty and what it means for our community services, education, and health systems. Other events include a Australian Redcross and ACT Legal Aid event regarding the impact of poverty on migrants, a writing competition for school students ‘pens against poverty’ conducted by Anglicare NSW South, NSW West and the ACT and a documentary screening of the issue of older women and homelessness, hosted by OWLS (older women lost in housing).
While it’s easy to judge those who are struggling, my experience of working in the local community sector has been that it is the difference between luck (or lack of it), an illness or injury, trauma and damaging experience are the key differentiator between any of us experiencing poverty and disadvantage. I have also found that understanding and awareness is a good first step to playing our part to responding to this community issue.
I believe that if we commit, and work together on a long-term basis, we can eradicate poverty in Canberra. Getting involved in Anti-Poverty Week is a great way to start. What do you think?