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Inequality is growing in Australia: ACOSS

27 March 2011

The peak body for the community and social welfare sector, ACOSS, says it will use its 2011 National Conference in Melbourne this week to illustrate the worsening plight of disadvantaged groups and people struggling on low incomes, which it says is leading to growing inequality in Australia.

"The indications are that more people are hitting hard times and falling into poverty," said Dr Cassandra Goldie, CEO, Australian Council of Social Service.

"At last count it was estimated that over 2.2 million people in Australia were living in poverty and 105,000 were homeless, but we believe these numbers are likely to be higher.

"Preliminary figures from our 2011 Community Sector Survey show the number of people accessing and being turned away from services is increasing, especially in the areas of disability, housing and homelessness, and youth welfare services. But the largest increase is in area of financial support and/or emergency relief, which has seen a 47% increase in the numbers of people turned away.

"The data is still being analysed and we expect to release a comprehensive report sometime in April, but the picture is already clear, and we are seeing enormous strain on community welfare groups. More than half the 745 organisations surveyed reported that they are struggling to meet the growing demand (54.8%). And the recent flood disasters are likely to have made this situation more acute, which occurred after survey period (July 2009-June 2010).

"Across our network, which comprises thousands of community and social services groups around the country, including the big charities, there have been reports of a surge in demand for emergency help during the Christmas holiday period, attributed to the accelerating cost of living pressures.

"St Vincent de Paul Society and Anglicare for instance, both reported a jump of about 30 per cent when most charities usually expect an 8-10 per cent increase for help around this peak period.

"We know the cost of essential items and services like food, rent, energy, health, education, clothing and transport costs continue to go up. In fact since 2000, the cost of living in Australia, as evidenced by the CPI has risen by 34% with energy expenses in particular doubling in the past decade and expected to double again in the next 5 years. And ACOSS believes this is understating it as the CPI isn't necessarily the best measure to reflect the disproportionate impact of the rise of essential goods and services for people on the lowest incomes.

"We know that nationally over a million low-income households are in housing stress with housing costs exceeding more than 30% of household income. 65% of people on low incomes in private rentals currently experience housing stress, with many of these households spending over half their income on rent.

"And whilst the cost of staying afloat has gone up, those people who some of the most reliant on our social safety net - people who are unable to get paid work - have not had commensurate increases in their social security payment - the Newstart Allowance.

"Although there have been some efforts by the Australian Government to alleviate these pressures, especially in response to the recent global financial crisis, with lump-sum payments to families, pensioners and carers, and increases to pensioners, other disadvantaged groups, such as those on Newstart and sole parents have missed out. Even when there are slight increases to meet increases in cost of living, these groups always receive less because of the way payments are indexed.

"Right now, a person living on Newstart receives just $34 dollars a day, and their last increase to cover the cost of living was less than 40c per day ($5.20 per fortnight). Newstart is now a massive $127 less than the amount received by people on pensions.

"We are particularly concerned about people facing long term unemployment, as they fall deeper into poverty and risk of homelessness. The number of people becoming unemployed long term continues to rise, despite the fact that Australia's unemployment rate is down to 5.0%. New figures released only last week show that another 6,500 people were out of paid work long term in February, taking the total number to 356,375 Australia-wide.

"All of this paints a worrying picture that challenges our long held notion of a fair and egalitarian society and requires the attention of our key policy and decision makers. We have urged action on a number of fronts, including reforms to social security payments, employment services, and our taxation system. ACOSS will use this week's National Conference to highlight these issues and allow community service groups working at the coalface to point the way forward.

"The Conference provides an opportunity for all of these issues to be put on the table and dissected by community workers, researchers, and government representatives, so we find ways to deal with these growing problems and reverse the current trend of growing inequality which threatens to make us poorer as a nation," Dr Goldie said.

Read the ACOSS Indicators of Inequality Factsheet>>

Media Contact: Fernando de Freitas 0419 626 155

For full details, including sessions, speakers, and program visit our website: www.acoss.org.au 

Note to media: The Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre advises media outlets planning to film at the conference must fill out a simple form obtained by contacting Jeffrey Harris on (03) 9235 8166 jharris@mcec.com.au.