More than two million living in poverty

ONE in eight Australians lives below the poverty line, according to a national analysis by a leading welfare group.

The unemployed, singles over 65, lone-parent families and households reliant on social security were among those most at risk, according to the Poverty in Australia report, released yesterday by the Australian Council of Social Service.

Women were more likely to be poor as they did more unpaid care work, had fewer employment opportunities and lower wages. Sixteen per cent of adults from non-English-speaking countries live in poverty, 5 percentage points higher than those born here.

And almost two-thirds of unemployed people live below the poverty line, compared with 4 per cent of those employed full time. Having a job was not always enough. Wages were the main source of income for almost one-third of poor people, but the report found these were often part-time earnings as people juggled work and family commitments.

Dr John Falzon, chief executive of St Vincent de Paul's national council, said it did ''irreparable harm'' when the poor were blamed for their plight. ''It is a matter of deep shame for a wealthy nation like ours that our unemployment benefits, for example, have been kept deliberately low as a means of humiliating the very people they were originally designed to assist,'' he said.

According to the international definition of poverty, which is having a disposable income less than half that of the median household, more than 2.2 million Australians live in poverty. In 2010 the poverty line for a single adult was a disposable income of less than $358 a week and $752 for a couple with two children. More than half a million children live below the poverty line, almost half in lone-parent families.

The ACOSS report comes just days after the federal government and opposition voted to change parenting payments, forcing single parents onto the Newstart allowance paid to the unemployed once their youngest child turns eight. The change could cost single-parent families more than $100 a week.

Greens leader Christine Milne yesterday cited the report as she attacked the government's cuts as sexism. ''If you're going to talk about sexism and poverty and values then it's actually in the budgetary context that you see those values carried through,'' she said.

The ACOSS report found increasing the pension for singles by $32 a week in 2009 had lessened the risk of older people living in poverty, though it found the minority still renting were much more vulnerable.

Twelve per cent of Victorians are considered poor, but New South Wales had a nation-high 14 per cent. The risk of poverty was generally greater in regional Australia.

Prominent Australians including Tim Costello and Janet Holmes a Court have called for Australia to set a target, similar to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, to reduce poverty.

A Senate inquiry to consider raising the $245-a-week Newstart allowance, which Dr Falzon called a pittance, ends next month. ''When you consider the unemployment benefit is at 42 per cent of the after-tax minimum wage there is a hell of a lot of room to move without it being in any way a disincentive to seek work,'' Dr Falzon said.

Dr Marcus Banks from RMIT, who worked at Centrelink before becoming an academic, said most Australians were unaware of the poor people living in their midst. ''Where are poor people presented on television?'' he said. ''They are hidden. The idea that you work hard and make good counteracts the more complicated story of their experience in Australia today.''

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