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The number of people living in relative poverty in Australia is rising again following “substantial declines” over the past 20 years, figures in a new report revealed. 

Those living below the relative poverty line — where people do not have the minimum income needed to maintain the average standard of living in their country — grew from 9.6% in 2016 to 10.4% in 2017. The Household, Income, and Labor Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey shows poverty is on the rise for all family varieties except couples with children. 

"We have seen an uptick in measures of poverty in the last couple of years on the back of fairly substantial declines over this century,” said the report’s co-author, Roger Wilkins. “We’d be a bit concerned about whether that was the start of a trend upwards, or whether it’s just a short-term upward movement.”

The survey, which has run since 2001, follows 17,500 Australians in 9,500 homes throughout their lives. 

According to this year’s report, poverty rates among children from single-parent families reached the highest percentage since the global financial crisis in 2008. Poverty rates among single older adults also escalated, particularly among women. 

The report attributes much of the rising poverty level to reforms within the nation’s welfare system. 

Previous changes saw many people transferred from high benefit schemes — like parenting and disability payments — onto the Newstart allowance. Newstart, a government-issued income support for job-seeking Australians, pays around $277 AUD a week and has not had a real-term increase in a quarter of a century.

For an individual not in a relationship, the relative Australian poverty lines sits at around $430 a week. 

"There’s a lot of attention on the lack of a real increase in the Newstart allowance,” Wilkins said, according to the Guardian. “But that’s probably not the biggest factor. It would be things like progressively moving more people onto Newstart from higher benefits.”

Beyond rates of poverty, the HILDA survey reveals insights into gender disparities throughout Australia.

The report has shown Australian men regarded as the family breadwinner still earn considerably more than women in the same position. While the rate of female family breadwinners has increased by 22% since 2001, women providers earn an average of $73,988 per year — compared to $107,366 for men. 

Women breadwinners in families with children also do the most unpaid weekly work — like household cleaning or caring for their family. Women providers do 43.4 hours a week of unpaid jobs, while their male counterparts complete just 26.2 hours. 

There has also been an increasing trend among rates of diagnosed depression and anxiety. 

In 2009, rates of anxiety and depression for young girls and women aged 15 to 34 sat at 13%. In 2017, over 1 in 5 young women lived with the conditions. Rates also shot up for middle-aged and older women, up 6% and 5%, respectively.

While the report fails to provide conclusive reasons behind the spike, Jayashri Kulkarni, a professor of psychiatry at Monash University, believes issues like sharp rises in childcare costs, the influence of social media, and the stress of balancing work and family life may be contributing factors.

“Unfortunately we see more depression and anxiety in women,” she told ABC radio. “This [survey] is a really important piece of work that adds to the picture that women are experiencing depression and anxiety much more commonly and probably more impactfully on their lives. We need to, as a society, get our heads around that and actually convince governments to do something about it.”


Defeat Poverty

Australia’s Poverty Rates Are on the Rise Once Again: Report

By Madeleine Keck