ACT News

Canberra becoming too expensive for low income workers

It's 5am in Goulburn and still dark outside, but cleaner Lorrell McGuinness is already up. She walks in to where her four-year-old twins are still sleeping and gently stirs them awake. The girls don't complain, they know this routine well. In order for Mum to be at work in Canberra on time, they'll have to be in the car and on their way down the Federal Highway by 5.30am.

It's not the life she wanted for her girls, and she worries about the 12-13 hours they have to spend either in childcare or commuting each day. But when the cost of living in the capital became too much, Ms McGuinness was faced with a difficult choice: continue working seven days a week until her health gave out, or give up on the mortgage and find somewhere cheaper to live.

Even with the $120 weekly fuel bill, the significantly lower mortgage payments leave about $100 a week more in her pocket than if she was renting or trying to service a home loan in Canberra.

Ms McGuinness is part of a growing number of Canberrans being pushed out of the city by a widening gap between those who can afford to live here, and those who cannot.

"With two of us working, I take home about $300-$400 a fortnight after childcare. I think there's a lot of people in the public service in Canberra on comfortable incomes who have no idea what it's like for people on lower wages … we do feel like we've been pushed out (of Canberra)."

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According to a Senate report released on Wednesday night, her story is becoming increasingly common. While the top 1 per cent of income earners have increased their slice of the wealth since the mid-1980s, Newstart and other welfare payments were too low, keeping many vulnerable Australians below the poverty line.

The report, co-chaired by Liberal ACT Senator Zed Seselja, recommended not proceeding with a number of the Government's proposed budget measures, including pegging parenting payments and pensions to inflation, introducing 26-week waiting periods to access payments and requiring young people with full capacity to learn, earn or work for the dole.

"The evidence shows that the likely impact of the Budget measures will be to exacerbate income inequality and poverty in Australia," the report said.

The report's findings come as little surprise to Lyndal Ryan, ACT secretary of the union representing some of the lowest paid workers, United Voice.

"It's not just that the income gap is growing, the wealth gap is growing too. With no savings, there's a growing number of people who are about two weeks away from financial disaster, and it only takes someone losing a job or their hours being cut back before they are in real trouble".

In October the OECD named Canberra the most livable city in the world, thanks to its low crime rate, access to services, health of the community and low unemployment. But Ms Ryan says the very factors that make the city attractive to live in, including its high average wages, also make the income gap more pronounced in the ACT than other parts of the country.

"People on low incomes in this town are powerless, because they know that if they lose their jobs they're stuffed. Is this what the government wants, is this the type of society we want? Because this situation is a human creation as a result of government policies, and most of it could be changed with the stroke of a pen."

In Hackett, aged care worker Elba Cruz is also on her way to work. At the age of 69, and not that much younger than some of those she supports, she has cut down from the 80-hour weeks she used to work, but still works most weekends and has had to move in with her daughter to share costs. Retirement seems like a luxury the former Chilean refugee will struggle to afford.

"My daughter has three kids, and we work hard together to look where we can save, like buying cheaper vegetables at the markets. She couldn't do it on her own, and I couldn't either, I don't think people in this city understand what's really going on, especially for single women. It is definitely getting harder to afford everyday things like food and bills.

"What upsets me the most is people working in government, politicians and so on, they get so much when they retire. I've kept working hard to build up my super, but I worry that I'm going to end up living very poor, like some of the people I see."

Across town in Mawson, it's concert day at the Chinese-Australian Early Childhood Centre, and educator Amy Brady has her hands full with last-minute preparations.

As the parents applaud their children, some also take the time to congratulate Ms Brady for all the hard work she has put into making the day a success. And while they're happy to tell her how difficult their own lives are, juggling family and work, few stop to ask just how she manages to survive on the $800 she takes home every week.

"Half of it goes straight away in rent. Then there's the electricity and other bills, and what's left goes on food. Often I'll buy tinned food because I can't afford anything else.

"I'm 35, and I'll never be able to buy my own home. I have done four years of training, I'm an educator but some people still just see us as babysitters. I love what I do and I won't leave the children because the job is too important. But I would like a little recognition."

With family support in Canberra Ms Brady is unlikely to move, but admits she has looked for cheaper places where the cost of living is less than Canberra.

"There's a lot of high-end in Canberra, lots of people in the public service on good wages, and they just don't see all the people below them struggling."

One person who does see them is St Vincent de Paul ACT and region president Frank Brassil. He too thinks the poverty trap experienced by many single mothers, those in hospitality and services jobs as well as the elderly, is largely a creation of government policy.

"We see plenty of single mothers receiving $900 a fortnight income and paying $400 a week in rent. You don't have to be an economist to work out that's not sustainable."

"There is a perception that Canberra is doing really well, and for some people that's true. But the cost of housing has gone up markedly in the last five years, the waiting lists for public housing are now well over a year, and Canberra is a city built for the car, so people have to factor that cost in too."

Mr Brassil believes the strong community support for the recent community sleep-out shows there is willingness at the societal level to help the less fortunate, but economics has been allowed to dominate government policy-setting to the point where it has become more important than social considerations.

"Our values system is built on endless accumulation of wealth, but we know that has a human toll. I think what's needed is greater engagement with our political leaders to rebalance things, so that we're getting a stronger focus on making housing more affordable so that it can be eliminated as a key factor in making people homeless."

For Lorrell McGuinness, there is at least hope that things will get a little easier. She's now looking at working closer to her new home in Goulburn, where she can earn a similar amount without having to commute so far each day. For now, she's ready to give up on Canberra.

"Since I moved across the border there's not as much stress, I'm getting a bit of work and life balance because I no longer have to work seven days a week to make those bills. With the recent job cuts I think these problems are going to start to affect people further up, on reasonable salaries. I think it's only going to get harder in Canberra unless there's a few changes."

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