Three mil­lion Aus­tralians live be­low the poverty line, but the high cost of liv­ing has started to creep up to the mid­dle class.

Ac­cord­ing to the Aus­tralian Coun­cil of So­cial Ser­vice, al­most two-thirds of house­holds ex­pe­ri­enced fi­nan­cial hard­ship in the past year.

Many low- to mid­dlein­come earn­ers are strug­gling in a cli­mate of ris­ing util­ity bills, paired with the stag­na­tion of wages.

The News has spo­ken with sin­gle par­ents, a pen­sioner, stu­dent and so­cial ad­vo­cate, who have dis­cussed the im­pacts the cur­rent eco­nomic cli­mate is pos­ing for mil­lions of Aus­tralians.

ACOSS chief ex­ec­u­tive Cas­san­dra Goldie has spo­ken out about the poli­cies and in­dus­try driv­ers at play which have placed many in fi­nan­cial stress.

Dr Goldie said the prices of elec­tric­ity had in­creased ex­po­nen­tially in the past decade and a num­ber of gov­ern­ment sup­port al­lowances re­ceived by those un­able to work fell well be­low the min­i­mum in­come re­quired to achieve a ba­sic stan­dard of liv­ing.

‘‘Peo­ple are strug­gling to pay elec­tric­ity bills on time, can only af­ford sec­ond-hand cloth­ing and are un­able to raise $2000 in an emer­gency,’’ Dr Goldie said in a state­ment.

‘‘What is worse is the low­est 20 per cent in­come group are spend­ing higher pro­por­tions of their mea­gre in­comes on hous­ing, food and en­ergy than what they were six years ago.

‘‘There are some clear steps that can be taken im­me­di­ately by the big en­ergy re­tail­ers to pro­tect dis­ad­van­taged peo­ple.’’

Shep­par­ton Fam­ily Care chief ex­ec­u­tive David Ten­nant joined the de­bate and said although the re­gion was not among most dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties in Aus­tralia, there were still sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges and signs of fi­nan­cial dis­tress.

‘‘We all need to be re­spect­ful and sen­si­tive and not just lead to the con­clu­sion that peo­ple are the ar­chi­tects of their own dis­ad­van­tage,’’ he said. ●

Some­times when things get tough, Kyabram mother Liz Pyke will go hun­gry so her three chil­dren are fed.

Ms Pyke, a sin­gle mother, is not un­em­ployed, home­less or any other pre­con­cep­tion many have about strug­gling fam­i­lies, but among mil­lions of Aus­tralians who forego food in or­der to pay the bills.

A damn­ing re­port by McCrindle re­search, with Food­bank Aus­tralia, said an es­ti­mated 3.6 mil­lion peo­ple have ex­pe­ri­enced food in­se­cu­rity in the past year.

For three out of five, it is a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence, forced to go with­out meals at least once a month.

Ms Pyke said after elec­tric­ity, gas and mort­gage re­pay­ments, it can be a monthly strug­gle of pinch­ing the pen­nies for food.

As part of her rou­tine, Ms Pyke will scan count­less lo­cal cat­a­logues for the best spe­cials, be­fore she writes a list of the cheap­est prod­ucts and which su­per­mar­kets to find them.

Mr Pyke said there had also been fleet­ing mo­ments where she had to ap­proach the Sal­va­tion Army for help with food in or­der to sur­vive.

Some weeks she lives from pay to pay, un­able to save for the fu­ture of her fam­ily in a cli­mate of con­tin­ued ris­ing costs.

‘‘It’s a very stress­ful feel­ing, be­cause if any­thing hap­pens you’ve got no money there to sup­port you,’’ she said.

‘‘I can see why there is so much sui­cide and de­pres­sion and par­ents go­ing off the rails be­cause so many peo­ple are un­der this stress, it doesn’t go away.

‘‘Then you have to main­tain a pos­i­tive men­tal state for work and the kids, so I think that has a huge toll on par­ents.’’

Nearly half of house­holds af­fected in­clude chil­dren, mostly un­der 12.

And it does not af­fect only those de­pen­dent on wel­fare, with 48 per cent work­ing at least part-time or ca­sual jobs.

Shep­par­ton sole-par­ent Deborah Cald­well is in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion, work­ing as a welder and tak­ing care of two chil­dren un­der 13.

While she was orig­i­nally work­ing five days a week, tak­ing care of the chil­dren and the house was some­thing which be­came too much.

Ms Cald­well said by the time bills and fuel were paid for, there was a tiny amount left for food.

This month, she re­ceived a $1000 power bill and was now be­hind on her rent as a re­sult.

She can­not re­mem­ber the last time she did a big gro­cery shop and does all of the cook­ing at home, with no money left over for take­away or din­ners out.

‘‘Most of the time there is noth­ing left, you’re just liv­ing, you’re not en­joy­ing life be­cause all you care about is mak­ing ends meet,’’ she said.

‘‘Some­times I’ve fed the kids but there hasn’t been enough for me. I know a few peo­ple like that, they’ll feed the kids and then they’ll go hun­gry be­cause they don’t have enough.’’

Ms Pyke also re­ceived Cen­tre­link pay­ments for the ex­tra sup­port, but of­ten felt she was be­ing pun­ished for do­ing the right thing.

‘‘I can see why some peo­ple don’t work be­cause what they take off you in Cen­tre­link equates to what you’d be get­ting if you weren’t work­ing,’’ she said.

‘‘The en­tire sys­tem needs an over­haul, from wages to the cost of elec­tric­ity, even down to bank fees I find un­nec­es­sary.

‘‘If those on a low wage re­ceived just that lit­tle bit more from Cen­tre­link, it would give you more of an in­cen­tive to work.’’

Sole par­ent: Deborah Cald­well.

Sin­gle mum: Liz Pyke.

Pen­sioner: Linda Lyn.

Stu­dent: James Miller.

Liv­ing fru­gal: Shep­par­ton mother Deborah Cald­well.

Chil­dren first: Kyabram mother Liz Pyke with her three chil­dren.

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