In the business world, the main reporting season takes place in August when many companies release their full-year results. In civil society, reports are issued year-round and unlike their corporate cousins the news they carry is almost invariably concerning.
One recent report came from the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce. Titled A 10-year-plan to unleash the full capacity and contribution of women to the Australian economy 2023-2033, its inherent promise was that women's potential would be, in time, "unleashed". However, the identified challenges were many and great.
"Australia is currently held back from reaching its full social and economic potential by pervasive and systemic gender inequality," the opening words read.
"Entrenched and rigid gender norms and enduring bias maintain a social context where gender inequality is assumed, accepted and encoded in everyday life."
It went on to identify five economic pillars where gendered economic inequality is seen to be prevalent: care, work, education and skills, tax and transfers, and governments. That seems to cover pretty much everything in life, and indeed, as the report concluded, "Current data shows that inequality is prevalent and persistent, and it impacts a woman's public and private experiences across her entire lifetime."
A bleak note was sounded by the recent Foodbank Hunger Report 2023, which found that 3.7 million Australian households had gone hungry in the past year, adding that because of the cost-of-living crisis, 36 per cent of households are experiencing food insecurity.
This is in Australia, one of the world's wealthiest nations, not sub-Saharan Africa or a country stricken by war.
The good folk at Anti-Poverty Week have campaigned for more than 20 years to enable all Australians to cover the basics and have a secure roof over their heads. They inform us that 3.32 million Australians are living below the poverty line, including around 761,000 children.
The Salvation Army's 2023 Red Shield report found people struggling to afford rent, household bills or medical and health care, and that they had little discretionary income after paying for daily essentials. Many respondents said their mental health negatively impacted their ability to undertake daily activities. Jobseekers encountered significant barriers to finding work.
The title of Anglicare Australia's recent report was a giveaway to the content. The Poverty Premium shows how people living in poverty often end up paying significantly more for food, credit, transportation, data/telecommunications, energy and insurance. This is because they are unable to benefit from economies of scale, such as buying in bulk or setting up direct debit payments.
If living in regional or remote locations, they face limited consumer choice, few public transport options and significantly higher costs.
And it's no surprise that new research by the Melbourne Institute concluded that low-income earners, especially those relying on income support, are three times more vulnerable to financial shock than higher earners.
A dramatic example of inequality is the size of the homeless population, totalling over 122,000, according to another report, the 2021 Australian Census.
In addition, many people are at serious risk of facing homelessness, as organisations such as St Vincent de Paul Society know only too well. Our volunteers around the country are in close contact with families living on the brink and every night share thousands of meals from our food vans.
The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute's recent investigation, Poverty and Australian housing, provided further sobering reading: "The location of housing available to people on low incomes is often only in areas that are distant from transport corridors and essential services," it noted.
The report added, "Light regulation of Australia's private rental sector exposes tenants to high direct and indirect costs, perpetuating poverty... To effectively address poverty in Australia, the role of housing must be critically rethought."
The society agrees that a rethink, along with commensurate action, is needed urgently. For that reason, we are also in the reporting business, collecting statistics (anonymously sourced) on the circumstances of the people we assist and developing a range of policies, which, if adopted by government, would make positive contributions to people's lives.
One current concern is the rising cost of GP consultations to more than $100 an appointment. Our experience tells us that many families and individuals forgo medical care and postpone the filling of prescriptions because of the need to prioritise the basics such as rent, utility bills and transport costs.
They are turning to charities and seeking assistance with food so that they can use their scarce resources to cover other necessary costs. In NSW, food insecurity is the main area of assistance where the society helps to bridge the cost-of-living gap.
This means many people risk getting sicker before seeing a doctor, which can complicate treatment, clog up emergency departments which offer free care (but longer waits), and impact on children, for example, by missing school.
In addition, people living in poverty are more likely to live in sub-standard, ie less healthy, housing and be unable to afford good quality food. This also impacts on wellbeing, especially that of children, increasing the risk of long-term disadvantage.
Recently we took delivery of a report commissioned from the ANU's Centre for Social Research Methods that considered how reforms to the Australian tax and welfare systems could reduce the nation's poverty gap by increasing working age payments such as JobSeeker as well as Commonwealth Rent Assistance. The latter is paid to eligible people renting in the private market or in community housing.
The clear conclusion of A Fairer Tax and Welfare System for Australia was that these goals can be achieved through more equitable changes to the tax and superannuation regimes, which, if optimally applied, would lift up to 834,000 people out of poverty.
Reporting on matters of concern is one thing, ensuring that suitable actions are undertaken can be quite another. However, the social dividend, to borrow a term from the corporate world, is undeniable and the investment, as the society will argue in its forthcoming pre-federal budget submission, is provably affordable, even if the economic weather report may be warning of dark clouds on the horizon.
- Mark Gaetani is the national president of St Vincent de Paul Society.