Though our communities experienced enormous change during the pandemic upheavals of the last few years, something that didn’t change was a widely held, yet mistaken, view of poverty.
For anti-poverty campaigners like Pas Forgione from Anti-Poverty Network South Australia, the biggest misconception about poverty has remained unchanged for decades.
“Despite everything we learned and experienced during Covid, which demonstrated how rapidly people’s employment and economic circumstances can change and how they are profoundly out of our control, there is still a widespread and stubbornly held belief that as long as you work hard, make the right choices and are prudent with your money, you will do well in life,” Pas explains.
“And if you’re not doing well, this means that somewhere along the line you’ve made the wrong choice.”
The simplistic view that poverty is something a person brings upon themself fails to account for the disproportionate number of structural factors, rather than individual choices, that have been proven to lead to poverty, Pas says.
“This fundamental misconception is a large part of why it continues to be such an uphill battle to raise income support payments to a livable and dignified level.
“It’s also a big part of why jobseekers in Australia face one of the most punishing mutual obligation regimes in the world. They are forced to keep jumping through hoops until they trip up from exhaustion.”
Nothing about us, without us
Anti-Poverty Network South Australia is an alliance of people affected and concerned by the effects of poverty and unemployment. Its members include jobseekers, low-income workers, sole parents, pensioners, students, community and welfare workers, and more.
The Network, which celebrates its 10th birthday this year, is a grassroots and volunteer-run organisation, whose members and supporters are predominantly people with firsthand experience of financial hardship, the housing crisis, or the search for paid work under challenging conditions.
“Our underlying philosophy is that the experts on poverty are the people living it,” Pas says.
“We shouldn’t have governments making policy that affects people who are living in poverty unless they are at the centre of the conversation.
“We’ve seen over and over again the devastating impacts of policies being made that ignore the needs and wishes of people experiencing poverty.”
Over the past decade Anti-Poverty Network South Australia has campaigned for long-term policy and structural change in three key areas:
- A welfare system that provides a livable income, and treats people with dignity and respect
- An end to the demonisation of the unemployed and those scraping by on welfare
- A housing system that puts peoples’ needs and rights ahead of investor profits
“As a grassroots activist organisation our goal is to bring together the people who are directly affected and support them to take action in their communities to turn the tide,” Pas explains.
The Network facilitates a range of activities, including supporting people on low incomes to speak publicly about their experiences through the media or lobbying their MP; connecting people with lived experience of poverty through public and community forums; and holding community-building events with free meals.
“We want to give people a sense of community and warmth and solidarity – to let them know they are not alone and there are ways of fighting back,” Pas says.
“We want to empower and unite and develop the confidence and strength and skills of people directly affected by poverty and to support them to push back against the years of dehumanising and cruel treatment they’ve received from multiple governments.
“With enough pressure from the community we can see different policies and a different world.”
Poverty as a political choice
The rental affordability crisis and escalating cost of living increases have exacerbated the pressures upon South Australians experiencing financial hardship. Pas says the Anti-Poverty Network is seeing increasing numbers of people being left behind each day.
“Our members tell us after they pay their rent there’s very little left over for food, bills, transport and medical expenses.
“A $2.86 increase per day for Jobseeker payments will not lift anyone out of poverty. These payments are $35 per day below the poverty line,” Pas continues.
“Not only do we have low income support payments, we’re in the middle of a housing crisis, Pas continues.
“South Australia has a shortfall of 32,000 social homes and building extra public housing takes time.”
In July, Anti-Poverty Network SA developed a Joint Statement on Rental Reform in SA with other community organisations including United Communities, Shelter SA, SACOSS and Better Renting.
The Statement calls for urgent updates to rental laws to ensure affordable, safe and secure housing.
“Rents are increasing by 10-15 per cent a year and any tiny increase to Jobseeker will be gobbled up by the next rent rise without even taking into account other increases in the cost of food items, the huge increase in the cost of utilities, and rising medical expenses,” Pas says.
“Governments do have the power to lift people out of poverty – none of this is inevitable.
“These are choices governments make in terms of where to spend money and what to prioritise. The wellbeing of people in poverty is not being prioritised.
“Just over three years ago we saw a conservative government temporarily double the Jobseeker rate and hundreds of thousands of people were lifted out of poverty. They did not have to skip meals, they could pay off their debt, they could get medical treatment they’d put off for years. This happened overnight.
“It’s absolutely possible to have a support system that ensures everyone has a livable income.”
Learn more about the work of Anti-Poverty Network South Australia
Read first-hand accounts of poverty in South Australia from Anti-Poverty Network members
Find out about Anti-Poverty Week (15-21 October) activities that are happening near you