16 December 2020

Mind the Canberra ‘affluence-washing’ this Christmas

| Zoya Patel
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Soup kitchen

After a tough 2020, many Canberrans will be living by the maxim “charity begins at home”. Photo: File.

For the first time in a long time, Australians have been united by an experience of hardship that has managed to traverse the privilege and prosperity gaps in our community. The pandemic has torn through the country and tipped the balance between wealth and poverty, with many people who were previously financially secure facing a level of vulnerability they may not have imagined possible a year ago.

Although we like to consider ourselves classless in Australia (in the egalitarian sense, not the lack of dignity sense), the statistics show that economic inequality absolutely exists.

According to the Australian Council of Social Services, “someone in the highest 20 per cent of the income scale lives in a household with almost six times as much income as someone in the lowest 20 per cent of the income scale”.

In Canberra, this inequality can be even more difficult to see, thanks to what I like to call ‘affluence-washing’ – how the vision of our city that’s popularised in the mainstream doesn’t account for the significant pockets of disadvantage in the ACT.

The ACT Council of Social Services released a report in October this year, noting that almost 40,000 Canberrans live in households that are among Australia’s most disadvantaged. And since COVID-19, the number of people living in poverty has increased from just under 30,000 people to just over 38,000 people

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It can be hard to picture this scale of inequality if you’re part of the lucky majority of Canberrans who enjoy the best parts of our awesome city-state. The visual reminders of hardship are often limited to a few beggars outside the Canberra Centre or local shops, perhaps the occasional encounter with someone sleeping rough in a public place. These extreme examples mask the larger swathe of Canberrans who live in the terrible grey area between hardship and what we consider poverty to look like.

These are the people who have a roof over their heads but worry daily about whether they can afford next fortnight’s rent payment. The people who can feed their families, but on a budget so tight Christmas presents are an illusion. The people who can only afford to travel between work and home because their petrol money or bus fares are precious and have to be prioritised. These are people who are clinging to their foothold out of poverty with the tips of their toes, one small shove away from the abyss.

The story we tell of Canberra to the world is one of affluence and prosperity. Of a city of progressive, highly educated individuals who are fitter, smarter, richer than the rest of Australia. We like to celebrate our cool little capital being lauded as one of the best cities in the world to visit, but do we do enough to make it the best city in the world to live in for all Canberrans?

Affluence-washing makes it harder for Canberrans in need to access support. Not only is Canberra not considered an area of need when it comes to qualifying for some federal grants, but there is also a sense of shame in admitting need when you’re told everyone around you is prosperous.

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Christmas is usually a time of giving – that’s a cliché that rings true for a reason. Charities can generally expect an influx of donations at this time of the year. But in conversations I’ve had with friends this year, there isn’t the usual appetite for charity.

As one friend pointed out, many Australians are doing it tough in 2020, and people need to focus on their own families before helping strangers, as blunt as that might sound.

I understand this, and I know that for all of us 2020 has been stressful and draining. But I’m also really aware that the stress I feel as a middle-class, full-time employed person is wildly different from the overwhelming stress of Canberrans suffering financial insecurity right now.

Yes, there was a brief time when my income wasn’t secure. But between my siblings, in-laws, parents, and my partner’s income, I didn’t for a second fear I wouldn’t have a roof over my head. Yes, the pandemic impacted the rhythm of my daily life – but more hours spent at home rather than out socialising is barely a disruption compared to those who had to close their businesses for months on end, without any certainty for the future.

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In Canberra especially, being conscious of my privilege is crucial because it would be easy to become complacent to it when it’s rare to be confronted by tangible reminders of inequality in my daily life.

But even as I love the amazing quality of life I have in affluent Canberra, I know that that experience is not universal across our city.

So this Christmas, despite my own feelings of stress and fatigue, I am still going to do my usual charitable donations, and seek other ways to support the less fortunate, as I do every year. If anything, empathy and charity are needed this year more than ever.

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Whilst we need to recognise that poverty and disadvantage absolutely exist in the ACT, it’s often counterproductive to attempt to overstate the levels of actual poverty and disadvantage.

Using relative definitions of poverty leads to significant overstating of poverty numbers and hides the level of real, objective poverty that exists in the ACT. This is what often leads to the general indifference from the population to clearly inflated numbers that don’t match with people’s experience.

The median weekly household income in the ACT is well over $2000. It is disingenuous to say that a household on half of that is living in actual poverty.

So whilst the messaging around charity and doing what we can to help those less fortunate is very good, it should be presented without the deliberate overstatement of the problem.

You might say someone is NOT living in poverty in Canberra on half our average level of household income at $52,000, but I reckon it would be pretty hard to rent or pay a mortgage off even the most basic house in Canberra when a household earns just $52k a year.

The cheapest places to live in Canberra are likely to be on the outskirts of the city with poor public transport options, poor services, poor facilities and little entertainment.

Canberra has a terribly high basic cost of living before you even get to non essential costs.

Most households here would certainly struggle to cover rent/mortgage; rates; water; electricity; insurances; transport; phone/internet; clothing; medical and food on just $52k for the entire household.

Firstly, I said the median household income is well over $2000 a week. Based on wage growth since the last census and taking a conservative approach to the median, the number you should be using is around $57k per year.

Secondly, no one living in actual poverty would be able to or should be able to afford a house so I don’t know why you mention paying mortgages.

And median rents in Canberra are around $550 for a house and $470 for a unit.

Nowhere have I said it would be easy to live in Canberra on those types of income amounts and I agree with you that the cost of living in Canberra is high.

But I still think it’s extremely disingenuous to claim these people are part of the most disadvantaged groups in Australia or that they are living in actual poverty.

It also ignores the myriad of other social services and welfare assistance available that becomes a greater component of income the lower you go.

The article is written as if we are living in some horrible centre of inequality when the opposite is true.

You seem to associate poverty with extreme poverty (such as those without a job). I feel that Zoya is talking about the less well off in Canberra.

But you seem to me to have a complete disconnect with the working poor of Canberra. I really recommend some volunteering through the Smith family or via Communities at work.

PCYC Erindale is also a good one to connect with kids less well off.

It certainly opened my eyes up helping some Tuggeranong families consolidate small debts and try and budget better. These were often working people in retail or cleaning, had mortgages, etc. So we are not talking homeless etc.

Too many Canberrans live in their own bubble and only see the street people or drug affected as the poor. Noting I don’t think this is you, as you usually have deeper insights, on this occasion it’s where you draw the line in the sand.

No, I associate “poverty” with the actual meaning of the word, ” the state of having little to no money, goods or means of support”, rather than a subjective definition used to deliberately inflate the problem by activists.

Honestly, under the relative definition used, you could double everyone’s income tomorrow and the exact same amount of people would be living in poverty. I think it’s disingenuous and counterproductive because it actually adds to the Canberra bubble that you speak of.

Once again, I’m not actually trying to discount what you’re saying, I know there are a significant amount of people who are actually working who still struggle in Canberra, due to the high cost of living. As well as people living in actual poverty.

And a large proportion of that problem can be sheeted back to the local government’s priorities and financial management. The government seems to just give lip service to these types of problems whilst spending far too much time on issues and projects that are either outside the scope of their role or not suitably assessed from an overall community benefit perspective.

I 100% agree with you on the ACT Government just paying lip service to some of the cost of living issues.

An oft promoted program or grant that helps a just handful of strugglers isn’t actually addressing the underlying problems. There was an energy scheme that ended up having just 22 Canberrans taking it up.

They’ve recently run rent reduction schemes where the vast majority of the rent reduction is worn by the landlord and by the federal tax system.

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