12 July 2022

'It's heartbreaking': more Canberrans are needing help than ever before

| James Coleman
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Woman in front of a pantry

Stocking The Little Pantry at Woden Community Service. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The Little Pantry is an emergency relief service for those in the Woden region struggling to put food on the table. People can come past and receive an emergency pack with a small number of non-perishable foods and personal items to keep them going.

Now halfway through 2022, more people are accepting this offer than ever before.

Katie Peek is the Community Development and Engagement manager for Woden Community Service (WCS) which oversees The Little Pantry. She describes the past few months as “heart-breaking”.

READ ALSO ‘A very difficult place to be poor’: collaboration key to drive Canberra’s food relief success

“We’re seeing higher rates of new users to our food support than ever before,” Ms Peek says.

“These include individuals who were coming to us for help two years ago before they managed to break out of the cycle of poverty. Now they’re forced to come back.”

So what’s going on?

The ACT Council of Social Services (ACTCOSS) is the peak body for organisations like WCS and lobbies government on their behalf. CEO Dr Emma Campbell says the main problem is that wages across the board aren’t keeping pace with rising living costs.

Girl receiving food in a box

Trisha receives a food hamper from WCS Little Pantry, and her family is far from alone. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

“When we look at increases in salaries over the last five years and we compare that with to the costs of living, there is no way they are keeping up.”

The ACT might still have the highest average weekly earnings in Australia, but living costs have increased over the past five years.

Electricity is up by more than 28 per cent, gas by 24 per cent, fuel by 35 per cent, and house prices by 19 per cent, to name just a few. The ACT also remains the most expensive place to rent in Australia.

READ ALSO In 20 years of fruit and vege, this Ainslie IGA grocer hasn’t seen prices so high for so long

“And we know that people are not going to the doctors because they can’t afford it,” Dr Campbell adds.

Throw in 5.1 per cent inflation – tipped to reach 6 per cent by the end of the year – and it’s a perfect storm. Even for people on a full-time wage, more and more of it is being sucked into rent, mortgage payments, groceries and transport costs, pushing them closer to the poverty line. People who were fine two years ago are now struggling to make ends meet.

“People are forced to make impossible choices between health care, transportation, food, rent and utilities. I mean, how do you choose between those things?” Dr Campbell asks.

Food pantry

Other community pantries have popped up in the suburbs, including in an Ainslie bus stop. Photo: Ainslie Community Pantry.

A figure on Australia’s poverty line is estimated each quarter by the Melbourne Institute, arrived at using household disposable income and population figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). For the quarter ending December 2021, this sat at $1,143 per week for a family of two adults, one of whom is working, and two dependent children. This and anything less classifies as poverty.

Rental stress, meanwhile, can be broadly defined as when someone spends more than one-third of their salary on rent.

“When you’re spending that much, you’re unlikely to have sufficient funds left over to cover the basic costs,” Dr Campbell says.

She says the final straw differs wildly from family to family, but either way, it’s a “crisis” driving them to seek help.

READ ALSO Those on the ground not sold on minimum wage increase – here’s why

“Not only are the numbers of people presenting higher, but the complexity and level of crisis among people who are presenting is higher. For example, they’re being contacted by the bank and getting debt letters. And of course, the more complex and the deeper the crisis, the greater the challenge in responding and coming back from that.”

ACTCOSS used to be the preserve of those on income support payments, but Dr Campbell says that more and more they’re being asked questions about wages and full-time employees, traditionally union territory. There isn’t an immediate end in sight either.

“When you look at the expected increases across energy, food, housing and more, there’s no clear end,” Dr Campbell says.

Emma Campbell

ACTCOSS CEO Dr Emma Campbell has welcomed the Albanese Government’s commitment to social and affordable housing. Photo: Region.

But she argues that with the right policies in place, some issues could be addressed.

“For example, we could have targeted concessions to help people on low incomes cover the cost of energy. If we prioritise the building of affordable homes, we could see some improved outcomes around housing affordability. And if we spent more money on community service services, then we could better support the people who are struggling.”

Dr Campbell describes the 5.2 per cent increase to the minimum wage as “a start” and also welcomes the Albanese government’s promise to build 30,000 new social and affordable housing properties over five years. But she wants more action on affordable healthcare.

“If you’ve got any mates or friends who are working in retail, hospitality or any of those front-line sectors, they’d all be feeling all of this.”

Ms Peek from WCS says initiatives like The Little Pantry rely on the kindness of those who still have enough to spare.

“We would strongly encourage anyone still in a position to support to donate food, goods or financial contributions so we can continue to meet the growing need.”

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The bill for pandemic policy is finally due. It’s only getting started. Hopefully it’s just the 1970s and not the 1930s.

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