Never experienced poverty? During lockdown you probably got a glimpse 



For those of us living on Australia’s east coast, an end to lockdown has been met with relief and celebration. There’s lingering anxiety and concern, of course, but for so many it has been a tough 20 months. This week, while we plan our covid-safe outings, picnics and visits to family and friends, consider this: living in poverty is like living in permanent lockdown.

Poverty takes away your ability to do the things you enjoy, visit those you love, participate in life’s events and milestones as you would like. You are dependent on the kindness of others. There are times you have to reach out for help, even at the risk of humiliation.

There is little you can do to change your situation and the ability to support your family is totally in the hands of uncertain and changeable government policy.

Like everyone who has endured lockdowns, the physical and mental health impacts of poverty are profound. You ask yourself everyday ‘when is this going to end?’ and often you feel like there is no hope for the future.

This month’s Anti-Poverty Week was unique in that it came at a time when many of us have seen or experienced some of the incredible stresses endured by families living in poverty – and as the world emerges from the pandemic with vows to make it a better place for all people, the question we ask is, what can be done to eradicate poverty?

Actually, it’s not complicated. There’s a mountain of research and evidence that tells us that there are two things that can be done to unlock poverty for individuals, families, and children: raise income support above the poverty line and invest in social housing.

In fact, affordable housing has never before been a more important solution to ending poverty.  The housing affordability crisis has worsened alarmingly during the pandemic. This is especially true in regional Australia where rents have increased on average by 11.3 per cent in past year, but it’s also a key driver in our capital cities, where the five per cent increase on already biting rent prices can be the difference between having a home and being homeless.

Add to this the fact that Commonwealth Rent Assistance hasn’t had a real increase in 21 years and only covers a third or a quarter of actual rent paid, and it becomes clear that to address poverty we have to increase our stock of affordable housing.

It probably comes as no great surprise to learn that women and children are hardest hit by the affordable housing crisis.

The Nowhere to Go report, which was produced by Equity Economics and released in July 2021, estimated that the lack of long-term social housing is leading to 7,690 women a year returning to violent partners and 9,120 women a year becoming homeless.

During the pandemic you may have stood on your doorstep and clapped for the essential workers, you most certainly will have nodded in agreement when a politician or even a friend or family member commended the spirit and sacrifices made by those health workers on the front line.

Well, these very people are also at increased risk of poverty due to a lack of affordable housing.

Data released this week by Everybody’s Home shows that COVID-essential workers in the care and services sector are facing a rental affordability crisis, with rent on apartments currently making up one third of their weekly income.

Of course, naturally and sensibly, the question needs to asked, what will investing in social housing cost the country, and can we afford it?

Actually, increasing social and affordable housing for families experiencing poverty also makes good fiscal sense. Modelling used in the Nowhere to Go report shows that if the Commonwealth Government invested in 16,800 additional social housing units, the $7.6 billion cost would be more than offset by immediate economic benefits of $15.3 billion and the creation of 47,000 new jobs.

In fact, the 2021 UNSW City Futures Centre study revealed that 47 leading economists and 40 senior experts from government have a strong preference for Federal Government stimulus to be directed to social rather than private housing.

In 2020, when we saw the world’s most developed nations brought to their knees by COVID-19, many of us dreamed of a time when we would be free to venture out once more and vowed to use this crisis as a chance to reconnect with the values that hold the most meaning for us, and rebuild the world into one that is more aware and connected.

Maybe a gift that COVID-19 gave us was to allow those who have resources or maintained incomes a small but significant glimpse into the mental and physical experience shared by people living in poverty. And maybe, as we emerge from lockdown, now is the moment to start rebuilding a better society for all families.

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