Poverty is a significant issue with over 3 million Australians living in poverty. This equates to the stark reality that in 2018, 1 in 8 Australian adults and 1 in 6 Australian children currently live in poverty. This year, 14th – 20th October is Anti-Poverty Week, a time to reflect on the issue, the causes, the individual and systemic factors at play and the opportunities for resolution.

The ways in which poverty impacts Australian women has been noted recently in research and was specifically highlighted at a public forum marking Anti-Poverty week on 16th October co-hosted by Shannon Fentiman MP and Micah Projects. The forum entitled: Women and Poverty, offered the social and economic facts of poverty for women and highlighted the lived experiences of a number of women living in poverty in Queensland.

MC Kay McGrath noted that the aim of the forum was to achieve an improved understanding of poverty, its causes and options for resolution. “It’s a real issue that affects women in particular. No one wants to live in poverty. The resultant issues are enormous: families fall apart, health and wellbeing decreases, jobs are lost. Mental health and disability exacerbate the issue as does isolation and disadvantage.” Kay hoped that participants would come away from the forum with greater passion and understanding and a determination to make changes.

Songwoman Maroochy Barambah offered the Welcome to Country. In doing so she shared her experiences of witnessing poverty. She said she’s an advocate for the Australian sisterhood and looked forward to a future of doing better. She said lifting each other up is key.

Minister Fentiman’s Opening Address:

The Honourable Shannon Fentiman, Minister for Employment and Small Business and Minister for Training and Skills Development said she was delighted to be hosting this event, particularly in this room at Parliament House. She thanked Maroochy and concurred with her message of strengthening the sisterhood.   She said: “We’re here to highlight the plight of women in poverty.  We’ve been drawing on research, today the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) released research noting that this is indeed a huge issue. We have half a million people living in poverty in Queensland.  Many of whom are women and children.” She stated that we need to draw attention to the various issues that women face. “This is an issue that is social and economic that needs government, business and community involvement.” She highlighted that women are twice more likely than men to work part time. Their work is often insecure and there is a lack of recognition for their work and contribution. She further noted her concerns that 1 in 3 Queensland women retire with no superannuation at all.  The majority of women spend their lives in caring roles – caring for children and then elderly parents. This impacts their income and social and financial wellbeing.

Minister Fentiman was clear that we need to work together and take pre-emptive action to turn around the statistics pertaining to women and poverty.  We need to remove barriers to equality and ensure access to employment and training. This is why her government has introduced free TAFE for year 12 graduates. This lack of access to vocational training was a significant barrier for many young people living in families who can’t afford huge fees the like of $7000 up front for certificates such as hospitality and child care. TAFE fees don’t qualify for the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). As such, finding the dollars up front is prohibitive for many young people. The Queensland government has waived these fees. “This initiative is life changing for some young women who are now able to study when previously they knew they couldn’t afford to do so,” said Minister Fentiman.

Free TAFE qualifications in the following industries are now available in high priority areas:

  • Automotive
  • Agriculture and horticulture
  • Beauty and Hairdressing
  • Building and Construction
  • Child care
  • Community services
  • Creative
  • Electrotechnology and utilities
  • Engineering
  • Hospitality and cookery
  • Nursing and health
  • Manufacturing and design

Minister Fentiman lamented that older women are often unseen in terms of poverty. Women over 60 years of age are particularly vulnerable. Many are embarrassed and don’t seek support from families or others. “We need to break the stigma about employing older people, especially women” she said.

Minister Fentiman highlighted the impact of reproductive issues for some women in that a woman having an unwanted pregnancy quadrupled their chance of living below the poverty line. She outlined the significance of the Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018 in changing laws that were introduced before women were allowed to vote. This Bill was passed in Parliament the following day. “When women are empowered the flow on is considerable. Children fare better, families do too, and societies are fairer and more inclusive.”

In discussion with participants superannuation concerns were raised. Minister Fentiman noted that QSUPER in partnership with the Queensland government is offering free superannuation advice to women. She also noted that access to courts and justice is an issue that requires further consideration.

During the questions and answers to follow, one participant noted the Me-too movement and the issue of sexual harassment in impeding women’s career advancements. This is a huge barrier for women at work due to the damage it does to women’s confidence. It contributes to their underutilisation in the workforce. Given Minister Fentiman’s background in the legal profession prior to entering politics, she is well aware of what a huge issue this is in terms of career advancement and in serious circumstances women not returning to the workforce.

A further commenter stated the importance of mentoring and collaboration between women from different backgrounds. We also need to look at services from a joined-up approach. We need to see the link between poverty and housing and address it. The cost of housing is prohibitive. Housing is the number one issue for women.

What it’s like to live in poverty in Queensland in 2018:

The lived experiences as told by women living in poverty were shared by three women interviewed by Kay McGrath. They shared their experiences of poverty and the many associated issues that have impacted their lives and wellbeing. What was evident through this conversation followed by comments by those in attendance is that the issue of poverty is significant, the associated issues are all consuming and the level of disempowerment is poignant.  Imagine being a woman who has escaped domestic and family violence, trying to rebuild your life with your children and living on a couple of hundred dollars a week, seeking accommodation, paying for schooling and all of your children’s needs. You’re looking for work but can’t find affordable day care.  How do you cope if your skills are in hospitality, nursing or similar professions that require shift work for your employment but there aren’t care options for your children for night shifts? Imagine your family and support systems are in another state or they don’t have a relationship with you or your children?  You are living below the poverty line, trying to get work and you can’t pay for care for your children in order to take a position that suits your skills. Also discussed was the reality of domestic and family violence. Whilst the impacts of such abuse are wide reaching, the causational relationship between domestic and family violence and poverty are rarely disputed. Many women are catapulted into poverty as a result of domestic violence.

When domestic violence is your reality, various other systems come in to play – the courts, Police, housing, Centrelink to name just a few. The myriad of complex interactions are perplexing. Issues of unpaid child support, particularly when an ex-partner states their income, an assessment is made, and Centrelink lowers their pay accordingly, but the child support is never received. Then there are issues of using the court system for assistance but you can’t afford lawyers or advocacy.

Does the wider community really understand what it is like to live in poverty?

“No, I think we hide it because we don’t want to be judged. Many of the local community organisations that once offered assistance are no longer there.  They’ve shut down. We feel very judged and very small and Centrelink payments are all below the poverty line. It’s been over a decade since payments were altered whilst the cost of living has gone through the roof – that has huge impacts for those living on a couple of hundreds of dollars per week.”

Another person noted that she wouldn’t survive without her partner. “I wouldn’t be able to survive or look after my children. As a single Mum I couldn’t afford to do that on about $240 per week.”

Kay McGrath noted that it has taken a great deal of courage and honesty for these women to speak out. Why are they doing so?

“It’s important to be heard, we’re survivors.”

“We want to make a difference and take a stand.”

“Some little changes could help people when they lose everything.”

“Everyone is fighting over money.”

At the core of the conversation was that all those sharing their experiences were bonded by their genuine aspirations for their children. “I want my children to live a different life and not have to battle. 40% of Australians will experience poverty at some time. We’re supposed to be the lucky country – it doesn’t have to be like this.”

“Here today my story is not unique. Giving voices to those who can’t be heard is what we are aiming to do.”

Kay McGrath thanked the panel participants for their courage, honesty and resilience.

In closing comments, one participant noted that instead of giving businesses kickbacks for being involved in housing developments or other such social endeavours that we instead need to legislate that businesses have a social justice focus and a requirement to give back. For example, with housing, some developments require that one or two units of housing are affordable housing. Such processes need to be included in all housing developments and this idea needs to be expanded.

As well as being Anti-Poverty Week, this week is also National Carers Week. 1 in 8 Australians are unpaid carers. It is really poignant to note that the vast majority of carers are women and these caring duties are often intertwined with poverty in that many of the women caring for their family members have no income or a very basic income.

Stay tuned next week when we bring you further conversations related to this anti-poverty forum and the associated issues and solutions discussed.