18 October 2022

Children often miss out as poverty strikes low-income families in high-earning Canberra

| Katrina Condie
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Child at window

Canberra children are often missing out because their families are struggling to make ends meet. Photo: File.

An estimated 9000 children are living below the poverty line in Canberra.

Despite the city having the highest average weekly earnings in Australia, the rising cost of living in Canberra means many families cannot afford the basics, such as housing, food, transport, health services, clothing and energy.

This year’s Anti-Poverty Week, from 16 to 22 October, will shine a light on struggling families with the ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS) urging all parliamentarians to legislate to halve child poverty in the Territory by 2030.

Care Financial Counselling research found a shortage of government housing, combined with a sharp rise in the cost of living, has severely impacted Canberra’s low-income families.

CEO Carmel Franklin said Care looked at the cost of living for individuals, couples and families receiving Centrelink benefits, and found households living in government housing were, on average, in deficit $15 a week. Canberra households living in private rentals, however, faced a shortfall of about $100 a week.

“This proves if you’re on any kind of Centrelink payment, you cannot afford to rent privately. You just can’t,” Ms Franklin said.

“Essentially, every single week these households have to decide what essential costs they will pay and what will have to miss out.

READ ALSO ACTCOSS wants reform to address ‘shameful’ child poverty rates in ACT

“Even if they’re in government housing, making ends meet is very difficult. And it’s impossible if they’re in a private rental.”

Ms Franklin said it was often the children who miss out on school excursions, after-school activities such as music, dance and sport, and family outings.

“Once households pay the essentials such as rent, food, electricity and fuel, there’s just nothing left,” she said.

“If they have unexpected medical or vet bills, their car or refrigerator breaks down, or they need clothing, often they’re using Afterpay systems, going to Cash Converters or maxing out their credit card to meet the additional costs. The problem is, they can’t afford to make the repayments, so it’s a constant cycle of debt and stress.”

Care CEO Carmel Franklin.

Care CEO Carmel Franklin says more needs to be done to address poverty in Canberra. Photo: Care.

Ms Franklin says the Federal Government doesn’t provide an adequate safety net for people receiving Centrelink payments, particularly those on Job Seeker. And at a Territory level, there needs to be a larger investment in social housing.

During its research, Care found one low-income Canberra family had a household budget surplus of $18 a fortnight.

The father has a full-time job, the mother works three days a week and they have two young children, so receive Family Tax Benefit B.

“After their expenses, including a private rental, they have a tiny surplus that really isn’t enough if they have any unexpected costs,” Ms Franklin said.

“They are making it through each fortnight by making things really tight, but there’s no capacity to build up a savings buffer in their bank.

“With rents so expensive and the cost of living going up, it’s driving Canberra families on low incomes, as well as those on Centrelink payments, into more hardship and poverty.”

She said any small expense could “tip them over the edge” and leave them with no money to pay their rent, putting them at higher risk of becoming homeless.

“Why have we still got people doing it so tough? It’s hard for most people to understand, because poverty is hidden in Canberra,” Ms Franklin said.

READ ALSO CEOs and executives to step up again for Canberra’s young men

Another Care client, John, 56, lives in government housing and is “only just” surviving on Job Seeker. The former chef has diabetes and arthritis and is awaiting a hernia operation, so is unable to work.

He said the Centrelink payment wasn’t enough and often found himself going without “proper food” with no savings for emergency costs. Despite using his heater as little as possible over winter, he was recently hit with a $500 electricity bill.

ACTCOSS has welcomed the ACT Government’s commitment to deliver an additional 400 public housing dwellings by 2025 and 600 more affordable housing dwellings by 2025-26. But it said the commitment fell well short of community needs.

Help raise awareness about the housing and cost of living crises by taking part in one of the Anti-Poverty Week Events across the ACT this month.

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