Reflections on the Victorian Budget

Council of Single Mothers and their Children CEO - Jenny DavidsonThe budget released on 3 May demonstrates why Victoria is the place to be living in Australia right now. The Andrews Government has put money behind their rhetoric, backing their equity agenda with some truly landmark investments.

The $1.9 billion to fund services for people who have experienced, or are experiencing family violence is a standout that  will fund such initiatives as a dedicated prevention agency, front line services, emergency and long term housing, financial counselling, 17 support and safety hubs across the State and 5 specialist family violence courts. This is a momentous investment and an acknowledgement of the scale of this entrenched issue. While we unreservedly applaud this initiative, we know that many women escaping family violence with their children return home when the costs of housing and re-establishing kids in school, are too great to manage on a Newstart payment or minimum wage. This is the rub of State-Federal relations and we can only hope the Federal budget will commit as profoundly to a safety net with funds for women and children escaping family violence to rebuild their lives.

What other budget initiatives will translate into support for single mother families in Victoria?

  • Funds for building social housing could ease the acute shortage of affordable housing in the long term, and funds for upgrading the energy efficiency of low income households should reduce utility costs (but will it help renters?).
  • $5.7 million for the implementation of Victoria’s Gender Equality Strategy includes $1.1 million for financial literacy programs for vulnerable women to improve their financial security.
  • $90m (over 2 years) for job creation, including for communities experiencing high levels of disadvantage, may result in the permanent part-time jobs that single mothers so desperately need. Only time will tell.
  • $4.3M will support 3-4 year old disadvantaged children engage with kindergarten.
  • Building new schools and school upgrades have been financed.
  • $81.1 million will be invested in more Maternal and Child Health services and targeted parenting support.

All of this is commendable and heartening. However, for a working single mother struggling to meet living and education costs, who has lost the Federal School Kids bonus at the end of 2016 and gets a tiny bit of Newstart to top up her wage, does any of this help her when times are tight? I think we will find that the answer is largely no.

The Federal budget is due out next Tuesday and I do not expect to feel heartened by it. I think there will be some concerning hits to the most disadvantaged in our community, in a continuation of the trend to balance the budget at the expense of those who can least afford it. We will be waiting with bated breath. I do not think crossing our fingers is going to be of any help.

Jenny Davidson
CEO – Council of Single Mothers and their Children

Alex Girle: What A Current Affair didn’t tell you

When Alex Girle invited reporter Ben McCormack from A Current Affair (ACA) into her home she did so openly, trusting he was there to tell her story with honesty and integrity and to report on her efforts to improve the life of her family.

Alex allowed McCormack and his camera crew to spend two days following and filming her family, getting to know her and befriending her children. Watching the footage it’s clear Alex and her children felt comfortable with the reporter and were lulled into a false sense of safety. At one stage Alex’s disabled son sweetly pats McCormack and tells the reporter he’d like to go to the park and Alex says McCormack even attended the birthday party her son invited him to.

Because she felt a sense of camaraderie with the reporter, Alex spoke openly and candidly about how much she received from Centrelink, the difficulties she faced finding work while looking after four children and why she was asking people to support her Go Fund Me project. She spoke about the small business she’d started, designing and making wall decals and the interest she was receiving in her designs; however, many customers were asking for larger decals, which Alex’s current equipment can’t accommodate. To buy the machine she needs Alex has to raise $13,000 and so she started the Go Fund Me campaign as a way to kick start this.

Reliance on welfare is not a lifestyle Alex willingly chose for her family and no one in their right mind could legitimately accuse her of being lazy. Alex has six children, four of whom live with her, including her teenage son with cerebral palsy, who requires near constant care. With the exception of her eldest daughter who now lives and works overseas, all of Alex’s children have the same father, including an infant daughter who died a number of years ago after only living for 16 days and whose loss Alex still grieves.

The better part of Alex’s life has been devoted to raising her children, leaving her with little opportunity to develop the kinds of skills that would give her access to employment which pays enough and provides the security she needs to look after her family. Alex wants to work, but finding an employer willing to accommodate her responsibilities as a parent (which includes being on call for her son) has proved impossible. The moment she mentions she has a high needs child doors start closing and the already rare job opportunities available to her dry up.

If she were to return to work, childcare costs alone would undo any economic benefit she’d gain and in fact would put her in a worse financial position than the one she’s in. While the ACA segment acknowledged this it failed to recognise there are numerous other costs associated with working, all of which would set Alex and her family even further back. Since she’s already struggling to make ends meet on what she receives from Centrelink it would be a foolish financial decision for her to take a job that won’t support her family. As she clearly stated in the interview, she often goes without food to pay for things her kids need and her sparsely furnished home is testament to how little Alex’s family really has.

Still, determined to find a way to support her family, Alex realised if no employer was going to give her a go she needed to take matters into her own hands.

When she approached ACA Alex wasn’t looking for sympathy or a handout, she was looking for a realistic way to help her family get out of poverty. You can imagine her horror then when the program aired, portraying her as a welfare queen, laughing all the way to Centrelink and living the high life off tax payer’s dollars.

ACA chose to edit their program in a way that clearly painted Alex’s family and other single mothers as welfare bludgers sponging off hard working Australians. They edited footage of a family experiencing intergenerational poverty into the segment, but failed to tell viewers Alex’s eldest daughter is now living and working overseas and was recently promoted in her work.

CSMC is dependent on donations to support to single mother families. Please join us.


 

The camera panned across her children sitting on the couch playing on iPads, knowing their viewers would surely question how a family on welfare could afford this expensive technology; however, they didn’t tell viewers Alex’s disabled son requires an iPad to help with his communication and learning, or that he dropped the original tablet, shattering the screen. It was only through a stroke of rare good fortune Alex was able to replace the broken iPad.

ACA deliberately didn’t show the cracked screen on the device her younger son was playing with. In fact in the shot where the little boy holds the iPad up Alex states he did so at the cameraman’s request, so the broken screen couldn’t be seen.

ACA didn’t tell its viewers Alex didn’t choose to be a single mum or that her family was shattered through violence and abuse. They didn’t tell you Alex and her partner moved their family from Sydney to Melbourne to access better medical care for their son. They didn’t tell you about the unscrupulous real estate agent who reneged on the lease the family had signed and paid bond and rent in advance for when they got to Melbourne, leaving them homeless with five children.

They didn’t show you the hard working mum who, in spite of the many setbacks she’s faced, still manages to get on with life or the mum who still keenly feels the loss of her baby daughter. They didn’t ask why Alex gets no child support, or tell you she manages the needs of their disabled son and the other children with almost no help from the children’s father. They didn’t focus on her genuine efforts to break her family’s current dependence on welfare and Alex’s attempts to create her own work were only added as a kind of afterthought.

During the segment ACA shows Minister for Social Services, Scott Morrison saying “We don’t want to give children and people growing up in families the expectation that welfare is a career choice, ‘cause it shouldn’t be.” 2GB broadcaster Chris Smith followed this with, “. . . the system’s there to cushion her through this, but she shouldn’t think that that should be her future, nor the future of her children . . . with all the welfare benefits she can obtain we’ve now got a situation where she won’t be contributing to the country, she won’t be getting a job. She doesn’t have the motivation to get a job . . . we’ve gotta get that multi-generational welfare out of the heads of people and make them realise the benefits for people that accrue when you go out and get a job.”

Neither of these men met nor spoke to Alex and one wonders whether ACA told them Alex’s real story, because they clearly didn’t understand her situation. And instead of focusing on the lack of suitable jobs for women with caring responsibilities, or acknowledging employers are rarely willing to hire women in Alex’s situation they insinuated she was to blame for her circumstance.

Of course ACA must have known their viewers would take one look at Alex and see a mum with four kids and make assumptions about her family without considering the dedication and obvious commitment it takes to raise four children on her own. They didn’t ask her about how hard it must be to be the sole carer of her disabled son. They told you what Alex receives from Centrelink but neglected to acknowledge how hard it is to raise one child on that income, let alone four or a child with a disability.

Australia’s safety net long ago became a poverty trap for those who most need support. Income support payments are now so low single mums and their children often don’t have enough even to cover the basics.

Women like Alex, who have experienced domestic violence and homelessness, still manage to achieve safety, security, education and love for their children, but programs like ACA choose to ignore this in favour of sensationalism and the opportunity to vilify single mothers and others caught in the devastating cycle of poverty.

Rather than highlight the true horror story, which is a system that abandons Australians to a minimum wage insufficient to support a family, a lack of real job opportunities or job security for anyone with limited experience, skills or education and the fact that support for income recipients has not increased to meet the real costs of living in more than two decades, ACA chose to use Alex and her family. They came into her home, gained her trust and befriended her children. They asked her loaded questions, repeatedly stopped the camera to coach her on what to say, including asking her numerous times to say the line, “I earn almost a thousand dollars a week on welfare. Why would I work for anything less?” and then edited her words out of context in order to misrepresent her and hold her up as an example of people on income support who don’t want to work.

It was a confusing and contradictory segment, which on one hand seemed to acknowledge wages were too low for a family to survive on, but then implied a minimum rate of income support provided as a safety net was too generous.

Since the segment aired Alex has received abuse from strangers and has had to suffer the embarrassment of a prospective employer “Googling” her during her interview and reading the mortifying details of the ACA beat up. After reading about her online this employer told Alex, “We are looking for someone with work ethic. Clearly you don’t have one,” so not only has ACA humiliated her, they’ve further damaged her already limited employment prospects.

What’s even more devastating however, is the impact the show has had on her kids. Alex’s children have been subjected to ongoing taunts and schoolyard bullying, including physical attacks and being told to “just give up and swallow a handful of pills” and “go home and cry to your welfare mum”.

Alex contacted the show to advise them of the torment she and her children were subjected to after the program aired. ACA advised her they had pulled the segment from their website, which suggests they recognise it was cruel and its misrepresentations were putting Alex’s children at risk; however the segment can still be viewed on the Nine msn website http://www.msn.com/en-au/video/tech/welfare-roundabout/vp-AAch8H1

Alex states ACA also tried to appease her by donating $1500 to her Go Fund Me account, but she returned this because ethically she couldn’t accept money from a program that had deliberately and publicly disgraced her.

The portrayal of vulnerable people, like Alex and others on income support payments by sections of the Australian media are polarising and often appear to coincide with the introduction of cuts to income support and harsher penalties for non compliance.

“Alex’s story on A Current Affair aired on the same day as a front page story in the Daily Telegraph claiming that Australia’s welfare bill was out of control,” says Cassandra Goldie, CEO of ACOSS.

Australia’s welfare bill to top $190b with taxpayers funding 240 million payments a year’, by Daniel Meers, The Daily Telegraph, June 29, 2015:

http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/australias-welfare-bill-to-top-190b-with-taxpayers-funding-240-million-payments-a-year/story-fni0cx12-1227419226438

“This was at a time when the government was pushing to have legislation passed in Parliament to further reduce family payments that would particularly affect single parents,” she says.

“We have been concerned for a long time at the way sections of the Australian media treat people receiving income support payments, especially single mums, young people and people with work incapacities and with disability. Unfortunately, degrading and insulting portrayals of people doing it tough in our community have become commonplace and many of our members have repeatedly raised these issues with media outlets and the Australian Press Council over the years.

“ACOSS has also raised this with successive governments. It’s become striking to us that such stories invariably surface at a time when the government of the day is about to enact some harsh legislation that strips income or rights away from people receiving welfare payments. We saw this under the previous Labour government with the cuts to single parenting payments, which dropped around 80,000 sole parents onto the lower paying Newstart Allowance.

“It’s time for governments and media outlets to stop this practice of misrepresenting, demeaning and insulting people receiving income support payments. This only serves to damage people and divide our community.”

CSMC sought comment from ACA, Ben McCormack and the two men interviewed for the segment, Minister for Social Services, Scott Morrison and 2GB Announcer Chris Smith. ACA, Ben McCormack and Scott Morrison all declined to comment. Chris Smith was not available for comment at the time CSMC attempted to contact him.

Understandably, Alex was devastated by the program’s misrepresentation of her and her family and legitimately felt her trust had been horribly violated. Despite this awful setback however, she remains committed to doing whatever it takes to help her family and get her business off the ground. Working from home will allow Alex to be there when her son needs her and she’s hopeful the business will eventually make enough money so she and her family will no longer need to rely on government income support.

If you would like to support Alex you can visit her Go Fund Me webpage at gofundme.com/ww7qjqc and make a donation.

Tackling housing unaffordability: a 10-point national plan

 Image courtesy of image catalog flickr cc

Hal Pawson, UNSW Australia; Bill Randolph, UNSW Australia; Judith Yates, University of Sydney; Michael Darcy, University of Western Sydney; Nicole Gurran, University of Sydney; Peter Phibbs, University of Sydney, and Vivienne Milligan, UNSW Australia

The widening cracks in Australia’s housing system can no longer be concealed. The extraordinary recent debate has laid bare both the depth of public concern and the vacuum of coherent policy to promote housing affordability. The community is clamouring for leadership and change.

Especially as it affects our major cities, housing unaffordability is not just a problem for those priced out of a decent place to live. It also damages the efficiency of the entire urban economy as lower paid workers are forced further from jobs, adding to costly traffic congestion and pushing up unemployment.

There have recently been some positive developments at the state level, such as Western Australia’s ten year commitment to supply 20,000 affordable homes for low and moderate income earners. Meanwhile, following South Australia’s lead, Victoria plans to mandate affordable housing targets for developments on public land. And in March the NSW State Premier announced a fund to generate $1bn in affordable housing investment.

But although welcome, these initiatives will not turn the affordability problem around while tax settings continue to support existing homeowners and investors at the expense of first time buyers and renters. Moreover, apart from a brief interruption 2008-2012, the Commonwealth has been steadily winding back its explicit housing role for more than 20 years.

The post of housing minister was deleted in 2013, and just last month Government senators dismissed calls for renewed Commonwealth housing policy leadership recommended by the Senate’s extensive (2013-2015) Affordable Housing Inquiry. This complacency cannot go unchallenged.

Challenging the “best left to the market” mantra

The mantra adopted by Australian governments since the 1980s that housing provision is “best left to the market” will not wash. Government intervention already influences the housing market on a huge scale, especially through tax concessions to existing property owners, such as negative gearing. Unfortunately, these interventions largely contribute to the housing unaffordability problem rather than its solution.

But first we need to define what exactly constitutes the housing affordability challenge. In reality, it’s not a single problem, but several interrelated issues and any strategic housing plan must specifically address each of these.

Firstly, there is the problem faced by aspiring first home buyers contending with house prices escalating ahead of income growth in hot urban housing markets. The intensification of this issue is clear from the reduced home ownership rate among young adults from 53% in 1990 to just 34% in 2011 – a decline only minimally offset by the entry of well-off young households into the housing market as first-time investors.

Secondly, there is the problem of unaffordability in the private rental market affecting tenants able to keep arrears at bay only by going without basic essentials, or by tolerating unacceptable conditions such as overcrowding or disrepair. Newly published research shows that, by 2011, more than half of Australia’s low income tenants – nearly 400,000 households – were in this way being pushed into poverty by unaffordable rents.

Thirdly, there is the long-term decline in public housing and the public finance affordability challenge posed by the need to tackle this. In NSW, for example, 30-40% of all public housing is officially sub-standard.

“Why the “build more houses” approach won’t work

A factor underlying all these issues is the long-running tendency of housing construction numbers to lag behind household growth. But while action to maximise supply is unquestionably part of the required strategy, it is a lazy fallacy to claim that the solution is simply to ‘build more homes’.

Even if you could somehow double new construction in (say) 2016, this would expand overall supply of properties being put up for sale in that year only very slightly. More importantly, the growing inequality in the way housing is occupied (more and more second homes and underutilised homes) blunts any potential impact of extra supply in moderating house prices. Re-balancing demand and supply must surely therefore involve countering inefficient housing occupancy by re-tuning tax and social security settings.

Where maximising housing supply can directly ease housing unaffordability is through expanding the stock of affordable rental housing for lower income earners. Not-for-profit community housing providers – the entities best placed to help here – have expanded fast in recent years. But their potential remains constrained by the cost and terms of loan finance and by their ability to secure development sites.

Housing is different to other investment assets

Fundamentally, one of the reasons we’ve ended up in our current predicament is that the prime function of housing has transitioned from “usable facility” to “tradeable commodity and investment asset”. Policies designed to promote home ownership and rental housing provision have morphed into subsidies expanding property asset values.

Along with pro-speculative tax settings, this changed perception about the primary purpose of housing has inflated the entire urban property market. The OECD rates Australia as the fourth or fifth most “over-valued” housing market in the developed world. Property values have become detached from economic fundamentals; a longer term problem exaggerated by the boom of the past three years. As well as pushing prices beyond the reach of first home buyers, this also undermines possible market-based solutions by swelling land values which damage rental yields, undermining the scope for affordable housing. Moreover, this places Australia among those economies which, in OECD-speak, are “most vulnerable to a price correction”.

While moderated property prices could benefit national welfare, no one wants to trigger a price crash. Rather, governments need to face up to the challenge of managing a “soft landing” by phasing out the tax system’s economically and socially unjustifiable market distortions and re-directing housing subsidies to progressive effect.

A 10-point plan for improved housing affordability

Underpinned by a decade’s research on fixing Australia’s housing problems, we therefore propose the following priority actions for Commonwealth, State and Territory governments acting in concert:

  • Moderate speculative investment in housing by a phased reduction of existing tax incentives favouring rental investors (concessional treatment of negative gearing and capital gains tax liability)
  • Redirect the additional tax receipts accruing from reduced concessions to support provision of affordable rental housing at a range of price points and to offer appropriate incentives for prospective home buyers with limited means.
  • By developing structured financing arrangements (such as housing supply bonds backed by a government guarantee), actively engage with the super funds and other institutional players who have shown interest in investing in rental housing
  • Replace stamp duty (an inefficient tax on mobility) with a broad-based property value tax (a healthy incentive to fully utilise property assets)
  • Expand availability of more affordable hybrid ‘partial ownership’ tenures such as shared equity – to provide ‘another rung on the ladder’
  • Implement the Henry Tax Review recommendations on enhancing Rent Assistance to improve affordability for low income tenants especially in the capital city housing markets where rising rents have far outstripped the value of RA payments.
  • Reduce urban land price gradients (compounding housing inequity and economic segregation) by improving mass transit infrastructure and encouraging targeted regional development to redirect growth
  • Continue to simplify landuse planning processes to facilitate housing supply while retaining scope for community involvement and proper controls on inappropriate development
  • Require local authorities to develop local housing needs assessments and equip them with the means to secure mandated affordable housing targets within private housing development projects over a certain size
  • Develop a costed and funded plan for existing public housing to see it upgraded to a decent standard and placed on a firm financial footing within 10 years.

While not every interest group would endorse all of our proposals, most are widely supported by policymakers, academics and advocacy communities, as well as throughout the affordable housing industry. As the Senate Inquiry demonstrated beyond doubt, an increasingly dysfunctional housing system is exacting a growing toll on national welfare. This a policy area crying out for responsible bipartisan reform.

The Conversation

Hal Pawson is Associate Director – City Futures – Urban Policy and Strategy, City Futures Research Centre, Housing Policy and Practice at UNSW Australia.
Bill Randolph is Director, City Futures – Faculty Leadership, City Futures Research Centre, Urban Analytics and City Data, Infrastructure in the Built Environment at UNSW Australia.
Judith Yates is Honorary Associate Professor at University of Sydney.
Michael Darcy is Director of Urban Research Centre at University of Western Sydney.
Nicole Gurran is Professor – Urban and Regional Planning at University of Sydney.
Peter Phibbs is Chair of Urban Planning and Policy at University of Sydney.
Vivienne Milligan is Associate Professor – City Futures Research Centre, Housing Policy and Practice at UNSW Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.