For too long, poverty reduction has been off the political agenda, rarely spoken about or acknowledged by our political leaders.
This month, the Australian Government signed up to poverty reduction targets as part of its commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals. Following this commitment, and as public policy debate opens up in the wake of leadership change, we must ensure there is space for a national conversation about poverty.
We all know that poverty and excessive inequality is a problem for the wellbeing of our community and our economy. It prevents people from taking part in social and economic opportunities, and it undermines the cohesiveness of our society. The concentration of resources in fewer hands reduces economic participation for the majority, which ultimately hurts our economy.
Our determination to eliminate poverty and reduce levels of inequality is not only the hallmark of a caring and humane society, our future prosperity depends on it.
Yet the trend has been in the opposite direction over the past two decades, at the very same time as our nation has become wealthier through an unprecedented period of economic growth.
At last count more than 2.5 million people were living in poverty in Australia, including over 600,000 children and the same number of people with a disability. We have seen income and wealth become more concentrated in the hands of fewer people over the last 20 years across the country.
Analysis commissioned by ACOSS recently revealed that people in the highest 20 percent income group receive around five times as much income as people in the bottom 20 percent, while people in the highest 20 percent have a staggering 70 times more wealth than people in the bottom 20 percent.
It's clear that not all members of our community have benefited fairly from Australia's growing prosperity. Many have missed out on their share: women and children, sole parents, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, those from families born overseas, older people, people with disabilities, and the lowest paid workers.
We cannot allow this to continue.
Community services know all too well the devastating impact of poverty on people's lives. As peak bodies, we stand united behind the call for a renewed national policy focus on this important issue, not just for one week of each year but every single day.
We urge Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his new Cabinet to work together with state and territory governments and the community in this collective goal. We can achieve this through collaborative effort and leadership, by elevating poverty reduction as a priority policy goal, and ensuring poverty impacts are considered in all decision making.
This must also involve changing the way we talk about people in disadvantage. We must stop the practice of demonising and belittling people who are struggling to makes ends meet, particularly in the media and in politics. The language of leaners, rorters and scroungers needs to change. Instead, we need to start talking about creating opportunities for all people in Australia, rather than seeking to separate and divide our community.
Australia is a fortunate country with abundant riches and continues to compare well with much of the developed world. This is in large part due to the effectiveness of our institutions: our progressive and highly targeted tax and transfer systems, and our system of minimum wages that helps keep low-paid workers in touch with growth in wider community incomes.
But at ground level we are seeing worrying cracks emerge that can no longer be ignored. We cannot allow growing poverty and inequality to be the new norm. It is not inevitable -- it's about the choices we make as a society and the choices our governments make.
We are currently engaged in a national reform discussion which is about how we can grow our economy fairly. An anti-poverty plan must be part of any inclusive growth agenda. Such a plan should set targets to prevent more people falling into poverty. The plan should elevate the 2.5 million people already living below the poverty line by ensuring they benefit from future growth.
At a minimum, the national anti-poverty plan should include a clear target -- to ensure that those with the lowest incomes do not continue to fall further behind the living standards of middle income households. Specifically, to reduce the number of people, including children, living below the poverty line, noting that Australia is currently above the OECD average.
It should also include a concrete plan comprising actions to increase job opportunities and prospects for people who are long-term unemployed; a substantial increase to the unemployment benefit of at least $50 a week, and a boost to family payments for sole parent families to reduce child poverty in these households.
Action on housing is also critical and we would like to see a joint government strategy to accelerate supply of affordable housing in local communities, and an increase in Commonwealth Rent Assistance to ease housing stress in low income households.
The Councils of Social Services and our membership of community organisations stand ready to work with the Commonwealth and state and territory governments to develop an effective anti-poverty plan as part of an inclusive growth strategy.
This blog is a shortened version of a statement from Australian Councils of Social Service.