Canberra has been described as a collection of suburbs in search of a city, and prides itself on a much greater proportion of its population being ‘middle class’ than most Australian capital cities.
Our city is imagined as being endless swathes of suburban homes, with families where both parents have a middle-income job (probably at least one parent in public service). But this is not actually true.
Research by the Women’s Centre for Health Matters shows that many women could end up living in poverty if something happened to the income of their partner, as it is their partner’s income that puts them in a middle-income category. In 2016, at least 34,174 women and girls in middle-income households (equivalised household income of $52,000 to $103,999 per year) in the ACT were reliant on parent or partner income for their middle-class status.
The scarcity of affordable housing, bulk billing GPs and specialists, public education that often comes with expensive extra-curricular costs, and a public transport network that isn’t always suitable for getting to and from work or education, means that middle-income households don’t have much wiggle room if there’s a sudden drop in their income. Death, disability, domestic violence, divorce, or decreased work income can happen to anyone.
For women, simply finding work is not a pathway out of poverty. The industries employing the highest percentages of ACT women are also the industries with the lowest average wage. Women working part-time in low paid industries and living in middle-income households are concentrated in Canberra’s outer suburbs – mostly in Tuggeranong, West Belconnen and Gungahlin, as well as a few suburbs in Woden and Weston Creek. These areas also have high concentrations of women in middle-income households with mortgage repayments. In the event of a relationship breakdown or the loss of the primary earner’s income, these women would find themselves living in a low-income household, making it much harder to pay rent or meet mortgage repayments.
Middle-income households who need to reduce their housing costs are unlikely to find anything affordable on a low income in the private rental market, as shown in the annual Anglicare Rental Affordability Snapshot.
While 24 per cent of women and girls in the ACT live in middle-income households with a mortgage, only 0.51 per cent live in middle-income households in public housing. A rise in unemployment rates or mortgage interest rates is likely to have a bigger impact on the waiting list for public housing (which in 2018 was 983 days for standard applicants for public housing) than a reduction in the number of middle-income households who are already in public housing. Many households who have been pushed into housing stress are forced to make compromises on other necessities such as food, education, health and transport.
For single women with children, there is less of a buffer between being middle income and low income, as the household is reliant on one parent’s income and capacity for domestic and caring work. Most single women with children in the ACT were in some paid employment, and a higher proportion than the Australian greater capital cities average for single women with children.
But again, paid work is not necessarily a pathway out of poverty for single women with children. The high cost of childcare in the ACT reduces the income available to pay for other living costs, such as housing which is also expensive in Canberra.
The Productivity Commission found that the median cost of full-time long daycare for one child in the ACT in 2017 was $545 per week, or $520 per week for family daycare. A single woman on $55,000 per year with one child under five in full-time long daycare will be out of pocket $209.35 per fortnight even after the Child Care Subsidy is applied. She will spend 9.9 per cent of her gross wages on out-of-pocket costs for childcare. Women with multiple young children, or children with additional health needs, may find it impossible to access appropriate and affordable childcare.
Getting children to care or school, and then getting to work, is a time cost that single women with children also need to consider when weighing up their capacity to take on paid work. There isn’t another parent who can share the workload of transporting children, and car parking is even more scarce and expensive after 9:00 am. Most of the single women with children in both middle income and low-income households in the ACT are in the outer suburbs, with Tuggeranong and West Belconnen experiencing the highest concentrations.
For these women to be able to accept paid employment or study to improve qualifications and get higher paid jobs, it is important to have a bus route from the outer suburbs to the city that allows time to get children ready for school first.
For example, there is an express bus route from Banks to the city that only takes 47 minutes, but leaves Banks at 7:16 am – far too early for young children to start walking to school or get on a school bus. Leaving home no earlier than 8:00 am to allow time to get school children ready means a 90-minute bus ride to work, and the risk of arriving after 9:30 am.
These hard choices have flow-on effects for future employment opportunities, creating a compound effect for women who are already struggling to improve their family’s socio-economic status.
Rick Morton has also written about what he describes as the cognitive tax of being poor, noting the impact of grinding poverty on mental health not only for single women, but also for their children. These are women making daily calculations on whether they can make the rent, afford to eat, or pay the electricity bill – but not all three.
Suburbs in areas where there is a higher concentration of women in low-income households, or at risk of falling into a low-income household, do not correlate with suburbs that have a generally low socio-economic demographic or a high level of income inequality within the suburb.
Women at risk of poverty are invisible but everywhere in the ACT, but the higher concentrations in our outer suburbs may reflect the difference in housing affordability, combined with reduced access to paid work that they can get to on time while still fulfilling their caring responsibilities.
It is important that these suburbs also have access to employment and education opportunities, and a public transport network that supports access to those opportunities.