If you’re looking for a measure of how wide the gap is between the haves and the have-nots in Canberra, Susan Helyar from the ACT Council of Social Services suggests that you have a look at the petrol pump.
ACTCOSS has just released their annual snapshot of Canberrans who are living in poverty, showing that almost 26,000 people are below the poverty line. Approximately 37,000 people live in low-income households in the ACT, including 8000 children in households with a weekly income below $500.
The number is below the national average, but Helyar says that averages aren’t a good way to understand poverty in Canberra. “We have a relatively high cost of living driven by high incomes and that skews the average to an inflated level.
“That large number of people on fairly good incomes in Canberra means that the market just doesn’t provide for lower-income people as it would in other cities where income levels are more evenly distributed,” she says.
“There are two examples of that: we hear a lot about high rental costs because transient people like the military and diplomatic personnel inflate that market.
“But the other big indicator is petrol prices. In the ACT, they’ve gone up by 15 per cent in the last 12 months, and they are 30 per cent higher in the past decade. That’s because the majority of the Canberra market can bear that cost. But for people in lower income brackets, the rise has a disastrous impact on household budgets.”
Helyar says that people over the age of 80 are over-represented in the ACT’s poverty statistics, as are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households, people with a disability and single income households, especially single-parent households.
She adds that figures collected by Anglicare on rental affordability show there are no rental houses that are affordable for a single person receiving the Newstart allowance. In 2018, more than 10,000 Canberrans were receiving Newstart or another welfare payment such as Youth Allowance.
“Rent controlled public housing becomes the only place where people on low incomes can find an affordable place to live,” Helyar says, adding that despite substantial new investment from the government, the market can’t keep up with the demand for public and affordable housing.
ACTCOSS is asking the ACT government to increase access to concessions for working people on low incomes as well as those receiving income support, to grow the size of utility concession so they match actual costs and ability to pay and to assess fees and charges on an income basis.
“If we look at speeding fines, for example, a $300 fine is meant to be a disincentive,” Helyar says. “For a person on Newstart, it’s more than their entire weekly income. An income-based fine system would mean that someone isn’t charged their entire income, or facing further penalties because they can’t pay.”
Calls to increase Newstart are growing across the country including from many in the business sector. Canberra’s Consumer Price Index (CPI), often used as a cost of living measure, has grown faster than the national rate for the third consecutive year.
Economic analysts Deloitte found last year that increasing Newstart by $75 a week would create 12,000 jobs across Australia and increase wages by 0.2 per cent. The study also found that Canberra was also among 20 areas across the country that would benefit most from a rise.
Helyar says that the ACT government also needs to focus strongly on its housing affordability strategy and to build financial literacy among the most vulnerable consumers.
The ACT Cost of Living Report can be found by clicking here.