This election, we cannot afford to ignore women on low incomes 

This election, we cannot afford to ignore women on low incomes 

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While every person living in Australia is feeling the pinch in the supermarket and at the petrol bowser, women on low-incomes are among the hardest hit by the rising costs-of-living.

Women power the care economy and carry most of the unpaid family caring responsibilities, yet they are too often left facing poverty, retiring with little or nothing, and being driven into homelessness at an accelerating rate. 

We know how to prevent this. We saw what could be achieved during the height of the pandemic when income supports were lifted, childcare became affordable, and housing was made available. 

It is vital for Australia’s economic prosperity to enable women into the paid workforce.  

New economic research by Chief Executive Women and Impact Economics and Policy has found that increasing women’s participation in the paid workforce would address Australia’s current skills shortage and have long-lasting impact on productivity in Australia. 

But so far this election, we have not seen the policy choices for lifting income supports and making housing affordable for women on low incomes. Is it any wonder then that women are twice as likely as men to remain undecided about who they’ll vote for this election? 

Women are at the centre of the cost-of-living crisis

The pandemic shone a light on how vital care services (health, aged-care, disability care and early childhood and education) are to a functioning economy and nation. Coupled with boosted income support payments, the care sector bolstered the resilience of our community to the social and economic shocks of the pandemic. 

Six months on, these workers – mostly women (80-90%) – are now running on empty and continuing to be forced to carry an enormous physical and psychological burden to ensure people in need can still access essential services. They are doing this in work that is underpaid, undervalued and insecure. 

In ACOSS’ 2021 Australian Community Sector Survey, 61% of women disagreed their organisation had enough staff to get the work done. A total of 43% of respondents did not agree they received decent pay for their work. Only 39% of survey respondents agreed they had decent opportunities for career advancement. 

We are facing record job vacancies and growing skills shortages, yet we have a ready workforce. Women are highly educated and skilled but sidelined by powerful barriers to their participation. Halving the workforce participation gap between men and women would unlock half a million workers. Australia simply cannot afford to lag as a nation on women’s workforce participation. 

In addition, victims of domestic and family violence must be supported to continue to participate in the workforce no matter where they work. 62% of women who experienced domestic and family violence in the last 12 months were in paid work. This is crucial to their economic security and ability to leave a violent relationship.

We need commitments from the next government to adequately invest in protections against poverty and homelessness and invest in the workforce for care sectors, with decent wages and secure employment.

Early in the election campaign we asked politicians and candidates – could you live on less than $70 a day? 

No-one disputed that’s impossible but that is exactly what 920,000 Australian women are being forced to do right now, many on the $46 per day Jobseeker Payment. Income support payments fail to meet basic costs, and this is becoming even harder as the costs of living rise. 

With older women becoming one of the fastest growing group of people ending up in poverty and relying on unemployment payments, it is imperative that Jobseeker is at a level that keeps at pace with basic living costs.  

This is in stark contrast to the stage three tax cuts that will cost Australia $16 billion, which when implemented in 2024 will mean three-quarters of the value of the tax cuts will go to the top 20% of income earners – mostly men, and only one third going to women. This will only further entrench gendered income inequality. 

This is a choice to prioritise $16 billion in tax cuts – mostly for high income men – over raising the rate of income supports – mostly for low-income women – to $70 a day. 

For those women receiving income supports, many of whom are single mothers, there is generally insufficient income to cover housing costs. Further, close to half a million women over 45 are at risk of homelessness in Australia. 

The Commonwealth Rent Assistance (CRA) still has not been increased in real terms in over 20 years and a new Anglicare Report estimated there are no affordable rentals for people receiving Parenting Payment. 

The alternative choice is gender equality: here are three ways to start

We are one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Instead of driving women into deep poverty, whether it be older women on the verge of homelessness, single mothers or women caring for our loved ones in aged and other care services, the next government can genuinely start working towards a more gender-equitable and prosperous Australia.  

To help support women’s participation in our economy, we call for investment in secure, well-paid jobs in care sectors, affordable and accessible early childhood education and care and support 10 days of paid domestic and family violence in the National Employment Standards. 

We must also increase the rate of Jobseeker and other income support payments to at least $70 a day and lift Commonwealth Rent Assistance by 50%.

At the same time, the next government must commit to increasing the supply of social and affordable housing to ensure ongoing stability and prosperity for everyone in Australia, especially women and children.  

These are important investments that can make a difference in women’s lives. Such smart investments can also yield long term significant returns in productivity and in unlocking workforce participation to meet labour shortages. That is good for all of us.

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