Families under pressure
THE STRUGGLE TO MAKE ENDS MEET IS NO LONGER RESTRICTED TO LOWER-INCOME FAMILIES
Everyday living expenses have become more difficult or even impossible to maintain for regular families, according to a Shepparton family support organisation chief executive.
For the first time in decades, the expense has spanned from an issue unique to lower-income families, to something even those on a stable, middle-tier wage are now struggling to meet.
Speaking off the back of AntiPoverty Week last week, Shepparton Family Care chief executive David Tennant said rising energy, telecommunication, transport and food prices had caused many families to struggle to make ends meet.
Paired with the rising costs, he said there had also been a stagnation of wage levels for a long period of time.
‘‘I have seen a trend where people have gone from being comfortable to in a crisis and they don’t have the skills to deal with that,’’ Mr Tennant said.
‘‘I think it’s been a very long and slow build to get to that point, but probably in the past 18 months to two years the pressures have really built up on low- to moderateincome families.’’
Real wage increases in the past five years, taking into account the cost of living, have averaged half of what they did in the preceding decade, according to a Treasury report published this year.
Fewer than 10 per cent of workers have experienced wage growth of four per cent or more, making it the lowest level since 2000.
And Mr Tennant said there were far-reaching consequences which stemmed beyond an inability to afford food or keep a light on.
Although poorly understood, Mr Tennant said there were multiple studies which drew parallels between financial stress and the incidence of intimate partner violence, poor mental and physical health outcomes and the healthy development of children into adults.
‘‘I believe the health and wellbeing of individual families and populations are inextricably linked to whether you are also feeling in good financial health,’’ he said.
‘‘I’m not saying that the links are causal, but they’re definitely highly-correlated. If finances are under pressure and there is stress around that, there are lots of other things that will be out of whack as well.’’
Official ABS statistics show the cost of electricity has gone up by 90 per cent in the past 10 years, water by 64 per cent, gas by 60 per cent, education by 31 per cent and medical and hospital by 38 per cent.
Mr Tennant said the banking, telecommunications and energy industries were less fit-for-purpose now than they were a decade ago, and that government restrictions on benefit payments were creating problems which cost much more.
‘‘In a sense, business is doing what business needs to do to grow and be profitable, but if you want to ensure that it interacts with the community fairly, you need to put in reasonable rules around behaviour and they don’t work as well as they should in many key industries for essentials,’’ he said.
‘‘In terms of government, there are those long-term, slow-build health or social problems that lead people to require ongoing support if they don’t have enough money to survive on properly.’’
While Mr Tennant believed Greater Shepparton was an area where there were elevated signs of disadvantage and challenges, the region still had great strengths.
He said communities could benefit from an ongoing support system which could be as simple as mental health first aid or additional support for families and acted as a prevention for consequential issues of financial hardship.
Mr Tennant said key benefits, particularly the NewStart Allowance, were too low.
‘‘For the people who do it the hardest, the main message is we all need to be respectful and sensitive and not just lead to the conclusion that people are architects of their own disadvantage,’’ Mr Tennant said.
‘‘The second part of it is we also need to stop making it harder for those people in designing a response to help.’’
‘‘There has been an unfortunate conversation for a number of years suggesting people who are doing it tough have that experience because they’re somehow incapable of acting otherwise or they’ve caused their own problems. In the overwhelming number of circumstances, that is not true. It’s not true today, and it hasn’t been true in the past, we need to stop blaming the poor for being poor. It’s easy sometimes in a lucky country like Australia to think that poverty is an attitude rather than a reality. We need to keep investing in support systems that genuinely help people that are disadvantaged.’’ — DAVID TENNANT SHEPPARTON FAMILY CARE CHIEF EXECUTIVE