Anti-Poverty Week focuses on stark reality
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Anti-Poverty Week focuses on stark reality

The word "poverty" is rarely used in Canberra. We tend towards synonyms like "financial stress" or "economic hardship" that can somehow soften the reality.

But Anti-Poverty Week (October 12-18) provides an opportunity to strip all that away and focus on the stark realities. Advocates are given permission to speak plainly about poverty, for this one week at least.

The relative affluence of Canberra makes the contrast with those living in poverty even greater.

The relative affluence of Canberra makes the contrast with those living in poverty even greater.Credit:Kate Geraghty

So let's be clear: despite our relative affluence, poverty exists here in Canberra, in all its inglorious variations.

As co-chairpersons of Anti-Poverty Week, we see the impacts firsthand through our organisations - when serving soup to those who don't often get a regular feed, providing a place to sleep for those who've run out of options, giving someone a bus ticket who might otherwise not get to the doctor, and paying a family's electricity bill in the middle of a freezing Canberra winter.

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The relative affluence of Canberra makes the contrast with those living in poverty even greater. Some of our poorest live cheek by jowl with our most well off. Yet, those suffering can be invisible.

Unemployment, housing stress, and gender issues are particular indicators of poverty in the ACT. For example, the unemployment rate for those aged 15 to 24 is 11.3 per cent, and census data in 2011 showed Canberra had the second-highest rate of homelessness nationally. Meanwhile, women – particularly older women - are over-represented in the housing vulnerability stakes.

A report by St Vincent de Paul (Housing Stress in Canberra Goulburn, 2012) showed an increasing number of Canberrans are just one or two missed pay days away from homelessness.

This is a new kind of poverty, in the sense that people are being pushed into poverty purely by economic circumstances. This has, until recently, been unusual and short term in Canberra.

In the ACT, a single parent could expect to pay 74 per cent of their weekly income on rent for a two-bedroom unit, while an age pensioner would pay 68.8 per cent of their pension on a one-bedroom unit.

Those with part-time or casual work are similarly hard hit by high rent costs. This creates a domino effect, leading to a lack of funds to pay for school supplies, medical expenses and basics like food and petrol – and vulnerability in the face of unexpected circumstances such as a higher-than-usual power bill.

As a result, people who would otherwise be able to manage on a low income without asking for assistance are turning to organisations like those involved in Anti-Poverty Week for assistance.

For YWCA Canberra, the issues facing older women and housing vulnerability are particularly searing.

ACT Shelter recently released a report into housing issues for older women, Home Truths: Older women's housing vulnerability in the ACT, which points out women in this group have "travelled many different pathways to housing vulnerability". Having led relatively conventional lives, life shocks, such as relationship breakdown, death of a partner, illness or job loss, have pushed them into tenuous living situations.

In a recent article in this newspaper, Matt Wade raised the issue of the gender wealth gap, pointing out that single women have 14.5 per cent less wealth, on average, than single men. In the 15-34 age range, the average wealth of single women was just 57 per cent of the average wealth of single men. The numbers only get worse for women as they age, with women's superannuation taking a hit when they typically break or stop full-time work in their 30s or 40s, to care for young children.

As Wade pointed out, "As the population ages, and lifespans edge higher, disparity of wealth among older people is likely to become a major political challenge".

These are the day-to-day realities of life for too many in Canberra, and many more teeter on the brink of poverty with job uncertainty hitting our city hard and youth unemployment on the rise.

We are asking Canberrans for one week to shine a spotlight on poverty in the territory in order that increased awareness can lead to more action. We ask that each one of us rise to the challenge and respond to Anti-Poverty Week's call to action, #DoSomething.

Events across Canberra during Anti-Poverty Week include a headline event at UC, Pathways out of Poverty, Eat, Pay, Love dinners at three Canberra restaurants, the inaugural Social Determinants of Health Alliance oration by Julian Disney (national chairman of Anti-Poverty Week), a youth unemployment forum and research launch by Anglicare, a Vinnies Sleepout on the ANU campus, and lots of neighbourhood activities. A full calendar of events is published on www.antipovertyweek.org.au.

Paul Trezise is the chief executiveof St Vincent de Paul Society Canberra-Goulburn, and Frances Crimmins is the executive director of YWCA Canberra. Both are co-chairpersons of Anti-Poverty Week ACT.

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