Talking Point: Make a choice to end poverty (The Mercury Newspaper)

The experience of poverty bites deep for Thousands of Tasmanians each day says Tasmanian Council of Social Service chief executive Adrienne Picone, but she argues people struggling to make ends meet is not inevitable but a choice by governments.

DESCRIBING what poverty looks like by someone who hasn’t experienced it firsthand can be a challenge. For many, it is deeply personal. So, rather than me telling you, I’ll leave it to those best placed to speak about poverty — the Tasmanians who live it each and every day. 

“Do you turn the heat on to have warmth in your house, or do you buy food? When your fortnightly income is $600, and you take out anywhere between $440 and $360 for rent, and then put power, medical and phone bills on top of that, and anything else you need — you don’t have anything left.” 

“I’ve had to go without prescription medication. If I get sick at the same time as my kids, it’s a bit of a toss-up as to who needs medication more, but I always choose the kids even if I’m worse.” 

“You give up what life is to be able to afford to survive. You give up going out places, like going to the movies.” 

This is just a mere snippet of what we heard at our statewide cost of living forums held this month across the Neighbourhood Houses network. 

These conversations were not only a valuable way for TasCOSS to collect stories of the impact of poverty to feed into our advocacy, but more than that, they provided real, tangible evidence of the toll the rising cost of living is having. 

Regrettably, there are a number of labels applied to Tasmanians living on a low incomes, which are largely inaccurate, and frequently demeaning.

Perhaps the most common trope of all is ‘poverty is a choice,’ a by-product of bad budgeting and poor financial management. 

I would challenge anyone who thinks this to try living on $600 per fortnight in the current climate. What gives when you’ve got nothing left to give? 

You don’t have to look far to see evidence of systems which are not working for the benefit of Tasmanians, and by extension are trapping them in poverty. 

A recent report showed the price of rental properties in Hobart has now outstripped Melbourne.  

Two reports in consecutive weeks have shown our energy system is not working for the benefit of consumers and Tasmanians are paying the price for it through higher power bills.  

Another study showed Tasmania has the greatest proportion of food insecure households (30 per cent). This far exceeds other states. 

For Tasmanians living on low incomes and caught in the eye of a cost of living storm, it is near on impossible to get ahead.

Every cent is budgeted for, which Tasmanians tell us is as much a mental strain as a financial one.  

The reality is the majority of us are only a pay check or two away from poverty.

Our service providers tell us of the jump in Tasmanians now seeking support, many for the first time.  

This should be of grave concern, not only for governments, but for all of us who may one day find ourselves in a situation where we can no longer outrun the rising cost of living. 

Poverty in Australia is not inevitable, governments choose to make it so by their policy and budget decisions. It can be stopped in its tracks, and we know this from our initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic when we lifted people’s incomes above the poverty line. This saw a temporary reduction in poverty nationally of almost 20 per cent and close to 30 per cent amongst children. 

Governments can make the choice to do it again and end policy-induced poverty.  

The situation we’re in now where Tasmanians cannot afford the basics should never happen. 

During Anti-Poverty Week, TasCOSS will be promoting the most important voices when it comes to tackling poverty: those with lived experience.  

It is not possible to listen to their stories and hear their experiences and be satisfied that we are doing enough to address poverty. 

More than that, they hold the solutions to our cost of living crisis.  

If we are truly serious about improving the systems, policies and services to support Tasmanians on low incomes, we need to genuinely engage the voices of lived experience in the decision-making and service delivery that impacts them. 

Only then can we truly put a stop to poverty. 

The focus of Anti-Poverty Week this year is ending child poverty. There are a number of events and initiatives happening right across our state.  

Find out more about what’s on by heading to the Anti-Poverty Week website:

Adrienne Picone is chief executive of the Tasmanian Council of Social Service (TasCOSS).