This election is characterised by bipartisan blindness. Both the Coalition’s 2019 Budget and the Budget Reply show that Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten have overlooked a looming national crisis.
Neither is prepared to recognise that older women in Australia are ageing into poverty and homelessness in unprecedented numbers. These women remain invisible to both leaders and to their party platforms.
So it seems we can best describe it as an ‘Invisible’ crisis.
And yet the statistics are available to those who want to see them.
- 1,060,515 women aged 65+ are living on or below the poverty line ( ABS 2016 Census)
- 1 in 3 single women aged 55+ live in poverty (Australian Human Rights Commission April 2019)
- Older women were the fastest growing cohort of homeless people between 2011 and 2016. (AHRC 2019)
- 63% increase in five years of older women accessing specialist homeless services in 2017-18 (AHRC )
- Approximately 48% of women aged 45 to 64 have no superannuation or own less than $40,000 (AHRC)
- More people, particularly women aged 55-64, are on Newstart than younger people and they are on it for much longer ( ABS 2018 & The Benevolent Society 2019)
- 35.5% of Australian pensioners, the majority being women aged 65+, live in income poverty compared to only 18.4% in Turkey! (OECD statistics 2018)
Yes, both parties did budget for increases in aged care, but we are not talking about women in aged care facilities or those receiving home care. We are talking about women who still maintain independent living. And it is these women who are struggling to pay for the basic necessities of food and housing, as documented by the excellent comprehensive 2019 Australian Human Rights Commission Background Paper: Older Women’s Risk of Homelessness.
The number of older women becoming impoverished is rising so rapidly that we are facing a national crisis. And it will only grow worse. By 2030 around 1 in 4 Australians will be 65+. The majority will be women and a growing percentage of them will have no financial security or housing.
Bill Shorten spoke compassionately about people becoming impoverished through expensive cancer treatment. He is right and the new measures his party proposes are welcome.
However, older women as a demographic group, are not becoming impoverished solely or even chiefly through illness. They are becoming impoverished by virtue of having led conventional lives. They did everything right – got an education, entered the workforce, raised families or cared for family, and did most of society’s unpaid work. They can’t be accused of being slothful or wasting their years on drugs. They are the archetypal ‘hard-working Australians.’
So how is it that many in this generation are now destitute and homeless?
They are proof of the dangerous long-term consequences of depriving women of equal work opportunities, equal pay and advancement, and concentrating them in low paid or part-time professions.
Remarkably, these women were the first generation of Australian women in history to have higher education, professions and expertise, and decades in the workforce. They should have been better off than previous generations of women. But as they have aged, they have been left with fewer assets and superannuation than men.
Most of them have no super as it was introduced too late for them. But those who do have some super, prove that super is failing women. Currently women retire with on average $157,050 while men retire with $270,710. Super was designed specifically and unthinkingly for men in the workforce. It did not take into account unequal pay and time out of the work-force raising families and the subsequent inability to re-enter the workforce. Perhaps it was assumed that there was a male partner who earns the ‘real’ income.
Australia is now reaping the consequences of social and economic practices that have disadvantaged women’s financial independence and undermined their financial security. So much so that after the age of 50, it only takes an unfortunate event to push women towards penury – death of a partner, divorce, domestic violence, an inability to find work.
Bill Shorten did not relate to this issue. Instead he spoke about ‘intergenerational’ issues.
This ‘intergenerational’ argument which has taken off lately is extremely disturbing. It is populist talk that pushes stereotypes of rich boomers who have everything and now are standing in the way of younger people getting homes and everything else. It pits one section of the population against the other. It distorts reality and is a dangerous demonisation of an entire demographic.
What it does most effectively is that it diverts attention away from the real sources of inequality. That is, government policies that enabled speculators and investors, local and foreign, to drive house prices up astronomically.
If older women are still able to live in their homes it’s not because they are exploiting others but because they bought their homes decades ago when all Australians, including the working class, were able to buy homes. They are not the ones who have made homes unaffordable.
Nor can young people blame older women for exorbitantly high rents. In fact it is older women who suffer most from unaffordable housing. Virtually no properties on the commercial rental market can be afforded by women pensioners without assets. Social or public housing has long waiting lists — 60,000 in NSW alone. Waiting time is up to ten years. And compared to young people, their chances of being able to keep working or even to find jobs diminishes dramatically with age. That’s why we see them couch surfing, sleeping in cars, and even in cemeteries. And that’s why experts say that this masks the real scale of homelessness as women are less visible than if they were sleeping on the streets.
And yet neither party committed to supporting the large-scale construction of social housing. A measure so desperately needed.
Age discrimination in workplace
Neither the Government nor Labour will commit to raising Newstart. But Scott Morrison goes even further. His stated aim is to pressure people off Newstart. “ What we’re doing is getting those people in record numbers who are on Newstart into jobs – that’s the best form of welfare, “ he told ABC’s News Breakfast.
But the reason older women are on Newstart longer than the young is because rampant age discrimination prevents them from holding and getting jobs. A newly released government report, Employing Older Workers, by the Australian Human Rights Commission, found that almost a third of Australian employers will not employ people over 50, despite the practice being illegal.
Tax cuts are not going to improve the lives of older women significantly. The Government will only apply tax cuts to people earning over $40,000. Labour will lower that threshold. But many women who are low-income, in part-time work or not working at all, are unlikely to see much if any benefit from this measure.
For younger women in the workforce today, the experience of this older generation offers salutary lessons. Unless gender equality is achieved and superannuation is revised, the only thing that stands between women in the workforce today and future poverty is a few years and a bit of good luck.
So the question remains – when will our leaders recognise this ‘Invisible’ Crisis – the plight of older women, and begin to address this as a national problem?