Why did Australia choose a poverty return? The impact on women & children

Why did Australia choose a poverty return? Senate Inquiry hears how poverty is gendered


“You will hear harrowing testimony from people trying to live as best they can while trapped in poverty in Australia, one of the wealthiest countries in the world”, Executive Director of Anti-Poverty Week, Toni Wren, said at The Senate Inquiry into the Nature and Extent of Poverty in Australia.

The inquiry has called for people with lived experience of poverty to share their stories.

Below, we share Wren’s opening statement.

I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on today and pay my respect to elders past, present and emerging.  

Anti-Poverty Week accepts the invitation to walk with our First Nations brothers and sisters in seeking a Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution.  Long overdue, it’s simply the right thing to do.  It’s also the smart thing to do, as we can’t work together to tackle their poverty without their voice. 

As Catherine Liddle, CEO of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s peak, SNAICC, has said When you look at all the investigations …as a result of the despair that we see in our communities, they all point to poverty – and that poverty absolutely is rooted in a lack of self-determination.”

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at this hearing. I appreciate you are commencing an exceptionally long day and you will hear harrowing testimony from people trying to live as best they can while trapped in poverty in Australia, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. You will also hear significant evidence of the extent of poverty and the solutions to it.

Before we delve into the detail, I want to quote the great Nelson Mandela: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.” 

The pandemic and associated lockdowns shone a light on what is important for us as a society.

It was a time when millions of Australians experienced the pain of having our health, income, freedom, our connection to others, maybe even our hope for a better future, diminished and constrained. 

Poverty does all of that. 

Living in poverty is like living in a permanent lockdown. The response to the pandemic also showed us that if we increase JobSeeker and associated payments, we can dramatically reduce poverty. 

Our submission and many others detail the remarkable improvement provided by the temporary Coronavirus Supplement (for example, child poverty was more than halved). Yet as a Parliament, we chose to reverse this.  We chose a return to poverty. To trap millions of Australians and their children in poverty and impede their ability to thrive and be healthy.

It is important to understand that poverty in Australia, like violence, is gendered.  Women at the time of separation are punished with an inadequate system of support and the consequences can affect their lives to their retirement years. 

An example, 36 year old mother (let’s call her Sheree) who has three children are aged 7, 12 and 14She has a domestic violence order against her former partner whom she left five years ago. One of the thousands of women faced with the impossible choice of violence or poverty.  She chose to protect herself and children from violence and now receives Parenting Payment Single and additional Carer Allowance as her youngest child is autistic. When that child turned six she was subjected to mutual obligations to work and look for work. In addition to her caring responsibilities for three children, Sheree studies full-time and works part-time. When her children were younger, her family’s income support was cut twice when she was in hospital and late to report to ParentsNext.  This week she will be transferred to JobSeeker when her youngest turns 8. A child’s birthday dreaded by hundreds of thousands of mothers. Transferring to JobSeeker includes a cut of at least $100 a week and a harsher income test, so she will keep less of her earnings – there will be less income for her children, due to the inadequate support system we allow to perpetuate.

Our submission includes evidence from a 2020 London School of Economics paper which concluded that money itself makes a difference to children’s outcomes. I thank the Australian Centre for Community Child Health for including new US evidence in their submission to this Inquiry. This evidence from the Baby’s First Years study, shows that “giving money directly to mothers living in poverty promotes babies’ brain activity”.

Again, I quote Nelson Mandela, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”


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