Youth poverty on the rise but it’s not a vote winner


By Russell Phipps

Integrated Family and Youth Services’ Paul Morton says Jordan Miletec now has the skills to take his next step in life.

It is getting late and ‘Sarah’ is tired, cold and scared. She is looking for a place to sleep – somewhere warm, safe and out of the weather. Wrapped tightly in an old leopard print vinyl trench coat, she heads toward the showgrounds and one of the empty pavilions. She is hungry but tonight will be another night she without food as the meagre benefit she gets from the Government ran out a couple of days ago.

Sarah could be any one of the many young vulnerable people living hard on the streets of our large cities. However, she is a 16-year-old child of the Sunshine Coast and calls Nambour home.

Sarah says she grew up in a fairly happy household, but her parents really never got on together and eventually split. After her father left, her life changed. “My mother found a boyfriend that liked to get drunk and smack her about,” she says. “Things got so bad I just had to leave.”

She says life at the time consisted of couch surfing from house to house. “I found that became quite risky, as a young girl sleeping on a couch I became too much of a temptation for some,” she says. She says after a couple of confrontations she found living on the streets was safer. “I met up with a group of homeless kids and we have become a bit of a family – we look out for one another,” she says.

Integrated Family and Youth Services (IFYS) representative Paul Morton says Sarah’s story is not unique as there are a lot of kids like her, finding it hard to survive on the Coast. “People don’t realise and politicians brush over the issue that there are a very large number of children, living below the poverty line,” he says.

He says this election is all about taxes, immigration and jobs. “You would be hard pressed to get a politician to talk about disadvantaged youths,” he says. “It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that there are no votes in it.”

He says poverty is the result of the cost of living continually eroding income, with those on benefits or low income being the hardest hit. “Since the late 1980s the Sunshine Coast has grown in popularity, which means less available housing, forcing rent up,” he says.

Source: UNSW Social Policy Research Centre

He says whereas groups like his were once able to put people up in cheap housing, hotels and caravans, those days are gone. “Now a lot of people can’t get their foot in the door, as there is no longer any affordable rental accommodation available,” he says. He says this is just the start. “With wage growth barely above inflation and the constant increase in food and other essentials, more and more people are being forced to the edge,” he says.

In 2017, research by the University of NSW revealed that unemployment payment fell considerably short of meeting the weekly costs of housing, food, basic healthcare and transport. Nationally it found that a single person needed at least $433 per week and a family $940 just to cover the cost of the basics.

In a 2019 pre-budget submission to the Federal Government, Anglicare Australia called for an immediate increase of $75 to Newstart and Youth Allowance. “There are people going hungry, without adequate heating in winter and cooling in summer and can’t afford essential transport and/or medical expenses,” their submission said.

They say this is causing a dramatic shift into homelessness for a lot of people, but official statistics are not showing the full extent. “There is little doubt that rates of homelessness are an underestimate given the number of people couch-surfing and living in ‘squats’,” they say.

Greens candidate for Fairfax Sue Etheridge says her party has tried repeatedly to get Newstart raised by at least $75 a fortnight. “The Newstart payment has not increased in real terms since 1994, and currently sits at around $40 a day for young and single people,” she says.

She says welfare advocates complain it is at below poverty levels as it is not enough to meet even the most basic costs of living. She says on three occasions in 2018, the Greens Senators and Independent Senator Tim Storer have put forward a motion to increase Newstart. “Senator Storer told the Senate that income support payments are far too low and that they serve as a barrier to gaining paid work and financial independence,” she says.

She says the value of income support payments has eroded over time and they have failed to keep up with wage growth and cost-of-living increases. “For example, the base rates of several income support payments, including the Newstart Allowance, have not had a real increase in 25 years,” she says.

Regardless of the obvious need, she says the Government was able to defeat all three motions with the help of Labor and minor parties. At the time Liberal senator Anne Ruston said her party was proud of its policies in regards to the unemployed. “The Coalition Government knows the best form of welfare is a job,” she said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also defended the decision to leave Newstart untouched. “Newstart is not intended to be a payment you live on, it supports you while you get yourself back into work,” he said.

Closer to home, Labor candidate for Fisher Daniel Parsell says youth unemployment on the Sunshine Coast is a very important issue. “If not addressed it can become a generational or even inter-generational problem,” he says. Yet, it was his party that voted down the Greens bill to increase Newstart.

Sources: Australian Department of Human Services, ABS and the Fair Work Commission

In a recent interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) Chief Executive Officer Cassandra Goldie says the current attitude to welfare is nothing new. “We’ve had successive governments use social security as the place they go to find savings,” she says. “The incidence of child poverty that we see today is overwhelmingly not because parents care less about children than they have done in the past. It’s because our social protections for families, and particularly single parent families with children, are being hit by cut after cut.”

She says this has happened in almost every Budget she can remember. In 1987 the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke launched a re-election campaign on the back of the promise to prioritise the welfare of Australian families. “By 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty” he said.

Over time, his statements have been criticised as too ambitious, but the changes his Government introduced reduced child poverty by 30 per cent. The key reforms of the Hawke government included:

  • A new supplement for low-income families to help meet the cost of living
  • Increasing existing family payments to reflect the cost of children
  • Linking family payments to wage growth, to maintain pace with the cost of living and community living standards.
  • Rent assistance to help families and others on low incomes to cover the cost of rent.

In 2017 ACOSS released a report titled, A future for all children: Addressing child poverty in Australia. They found of the three million people living in poverty in Australia, 731,000 were children, representing 17 per cent of children under the age of 15. It said since the inroads of the Hawke era, governments have lacked the ambition to reduce child poverty. “Social security payments for families, and particularly single parent families, have been slashed in recent years, with cuts included in almost every federal Budget since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis,” they say.

Mr Morton says he is in fear that Australia is breeding an under-class. He says he has never seen the level of poverty he is witnessing now. “I am watching children grow up in conditions that I never thought were possible,” he says. “People are continually having to make the decision to either buy petrol, pay bills or put food on the table.”

He says there is a perception that there is a “deserving” and “undeserving” poor and people and politicians don’t care about those they consider as “undeserving”. “We seem to still have the mindset that they are all surfers and dole bludgers,” he says.

He says the Prime Minister’s comment that Newstart is only a support until you get a job is a bit rich. “The official youth unemployment rate on the Sunshine Coast is around 15 per cent, almost three times the nation’s overall average,” he says.

He says through his experience the figure is very conservative. “I know personally of some areas where the true number of unemployed youth is above 25 percent,” he says. “How are these kids supposed to get a job when there are no jobs out there?”

As General Manager of Push Productions, Mr Morton says the business’s major objective is to help the disadvantaged youth of the Sunshine Coast. “All our profits are returned to investing in young people and all our young staff have grown up under the IFYS foster program,” he says. “Some of these kids have been given the short end of the stick, pushed from pillar to post, stigmatised and pushed aside.”

He says his company gives these young people the opportunity to earn a wage and gain a sense of responsibility. “We have a strong ethos that says if we don’t help them grow into good adults, they won’t grow into good adults,” he says.

Jordan Miletec considers himself one of the lucky ones. When he was 13 months old, he was put into the care of a loving foster mother. “It wasn’t that my family was abusive, they just couldn’t care for me,” he says.

He says the decision to place him in foster care was the best thing that could have happened. “My foster mother treated me no different to her own children and brought me up right,” he says. “She gave me a strong moral upbringing and taught me responsibility.”

He says after he graduated from high school, despite trying, he couldn’t find a job. “After about a year and a half drifting from one job interview to another, IFYS offered me a position in Push Productions,” he says. “Paul phoned me and asked if I liked fast cars. But what he didn’t say was the first day would be spent peeling old stickers off those cars.”

He says Paul and IFYS have given him a chance to gain skills and a sense of worth. “There are many kids out there with nothing,” he says. “They are on this merry-go-round going nowhere.”

He says the world needs more people like Paul and all those at IFYS. “When I finish here I would love to work as a youth worker,” he says. “I am one of the lucky few and would love to help those who aren’t.”