Australia’s poverty of ambition

Tackling poverty means addressing policy failings

Cameron Parsell

Government and governance, Social policy | Australia

19 October 2017

To mark Anti-Poverty Week we asked experts to suggest policy ideas that could help tackle poverty in Australia. Cameron Parsell writes that the answers are obvious, and the problem is the failure to act on them.

What I am about to say is probably self-evident, but it is worth repeating, if only because the self-evident nature of the assertion has not been sufficient for policy action to address the problem. Here it is: along with increasing the rate of welfare entitlements, Australia could achieve demonstrable improvements in reducing poverty by massively increasing the supply of housing that is affordable for people on low incomes.

Very few people are lucky enough to access the miniscule supply of social housing in Australia, which currently accounts for less than five per cent of the entire housing sector. As such, not only are people in poverty excluded from affordable housing, but the unaffordability of housing available through the market directly contributes to their poverty.

Moreover, with a constrained capacity to access housing that is available and regulated through the market, people living in poverty are left with no option but to access private rental housing available through informal lettings.

Living in the peripheral housing market, without the protection provided by residential tenancy legislation, leaves people in poverty open to exploitation.

Additionally, the peripheral market is precarious, and such instability can further undermine people’s capacity to bring control and order to their lives – after all, being forced to frequently change address is hardly conducive to accessing social services or finding stable employment.

More on this: Anti-Poverty Week: The SDGs have put Australia on notice

But increasing the supply of affordable housing isn’t the only way we could do a much better job of addressing poverty in Australia. And there are ways we could do this now without necessarily introducing new un-costed policy proposals. As it stands, we currently spend hundreds of millions of dollars on social services and charitable responses and we have very little evidence to substantiate their impact.

Beyond the absence of evidence about what we get for the services that respond to people in poverty, we also dedicate considerable time, energy, and money to models of service provision that aim to soothe poverty, rather than end it.

Drawing on Peter Singer’s Effective Altruism movement, Beth Watts and I recently argued that some charitable responses to poverty in Australia prioritise the good intentions of the charitable and assume giving anything to people in poverty is justified on the basis that they have so little.

We all too often set a low bar for what people in poverty expect, and our policies reflect this.

Most Australians who experience poverty do not experience chronic poverty. Many are able to escape poverty when social and economic conditions improve.

For a minority of people, however (the Productivity Commission says that less than one per cent of Australians experience very deep and persistent social exclusion), their poverty endures, as myriad forms of social services and charity fail to enable them to change the conditions of their lives.

Other than increase the supply of affordable housing, there would be two priorities on my agenda if I could introduce policy in Australia.

First, I would ensure that our policy responses to people living in poverty are informed by evidence.

Second, I would make it a requirement that such programs and initiatives are measured by their capacity to assist people to escape poverty.

It is insufficient to say that poverty is complex and multidimensional to justify our policy failings. People continue to experience poverty in Australia because we exhibit a poverty of ambition for them.

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