<i>Illustration: Kerrie Leishman</i>

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman

It's remarkable that, despite all the effort and expense the government goes to in measuring gross domestic product, it doesn't run to the modest extra expense of measuring poverty. But this being so, it's hardly remarkable the media and the public pay far more attention to the gyrations of GDP than to the extent of poverty.

Why the lack of official interest in such a basic measure of how we're doing as a nation? Because, in an egalitarian country such as ours, poverty isn't much of a problem?

Err, no. In the mid-2000s, Australia's rate of poverty was the fourth highest among 18 developed economies. Surely the reason couldn't be that our record is so bad that the government would prefer us not to think about it? Hmmm.

The more I think about it, the more I want to know what there is to know about poverty in Australia.

And, when some of our big charities - Anglicare, St Vincent de Paul and the Salvos - feel it worth expending some of their precious funds to commission a report on the subject, as they did this week, I'm inclined to take notice. Who knows when next the problem will be drawn to our attention?

As you've seen from the headlines, the report finds that more than 2 million Australians - one person in eight - is living in poverty. This poverty rate of almost 13 per cent has changed a bit but not a lot over the past decade. It's not shooting up, but neither is it falling.

What exactly is meant by ''living in poverty''? How is it measured?

There is more to being poor than just an absence of money. Another dimension is how isolated you are from the support of other people. But this measure - calculated from official surveys by the social policy research centre at the University of NSW - is a purely monetary one.

The next point is that poverty is measured differently in rich countries from poor countries.

In the developing world they measure ''absolute poverty'' - whether you're so poor you're at risk of death from malnutrition.

In rich countries few people, no matter how poor, are starving. So we measure ''relative poverty'' - how many people or households have incomes well below what's typical in our community. And how low is ''well below''? Usually, that's a case of drawing an arbitrary line, and drawing it so low there isn't much room for argument.

This study sets the poverty line at a level commonly used in comparisons between the rich countries. It ranks the disposable (after-tax) incomes of all households from highest to lowest, then draws the line at 50 per cent of the median (dead-middle) income.

The study finds almost 13 per cent of households fall below the line. Hold that thought.

The main way people avoid poverty is by having a job and earning income from it. So you'd expect that, unless people were on particularly low wages, or could find only part-time work, or had a lot of others depending on them, working households would avoid poverty.

The main way governments seek to avoid poverty in the community is by paying a range of social security benefits to those people who, for one reason or another, are unable to work.

Those too old to work get the age pension; those too sick get the sickness benefit; those physically or mentally unable to work get the disability support pension; those too busy minding children get the single parenting payment; those too busy caring for a relative get the carer payment. And those who just can't find a job get the dole.

The federal minimum wage - increased each year by Fair Work Australia - is comfortably above the poverty line which, in 2010, was $358 a week for single adults.

And, most people with children to support get the relatively generous family tax benefit.

So why do 13 per cent of people fall below the poverty line? The biggest single reason is that the levels of the various social benefits fall below the line. Way below in the case of the dole; a little below in the case of the single parenting payment and the age pension.

It follows that, unless they can supplement their payment with income from savings or a little part-time work, people living on social security payments are at great risk of poverty. Overall, 37 per cent of people on social payments live below the line. But the proportions vary widely according to the type of payment: 14 per cent of those on the age pension, 42 per cent of those on the disability pension, 45 per cent of those on the parenting payment and, get this, 52 per cent of those on the dole. Not surprising then, that people on social payments account for almost two-thirds of those in poverty.

The next most important factor explaining why people fall below the line is the high cost of housing.

In particular, the gap between the costs of owning and renting. It's a safe bet the majority of people in poverty are renters.

It may surprise you that the retired account for only about 15 per cent of those below the line. That's because so many own their homes outright.

When you're measuring relative poverty, it follows as a matter of arithmetic that the only way to reduce the proportion of people falling below the line is for their incomes to increase at a faster rate than incomes generally.

Julia Gillard could reduce poverty at a single (expensive) stroke: a decent, one-off increase in the indefensibly low rate of the dole.

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