SACOSS today launched its report, Working to Make Ends Meet: Low-income Workers and Energy Bill Stress. The report investigates households whose main source of income is wages but who are still living below the “poverty line”. This report, based on national statistical data and South Australian case studies, is unique in that most other affordability research has focused on consumers generally, or those on income support like Newstart and other allowances.
In 2015-16, there were 249,818 waged poor households across Australia, representing 3.2% of all Australian households. Compared to the average household, these households were more likely to be couples with children or single parents, and to be in rental accommodation. They were also far less likely to seek support from charities and other services.
Beyond those people in waged poverty, there is also a cohort of 801,985 low-income waged households representing 10.4% of all households who, despite being above the poverty line, are on low-incomes and struggling with energy costs. These “low-income waged households” are a secondary focus of this report.
As highlighted in Working to Make Ends Meet, “waged poor” households face many of the same challenges that other poor households have, but they also face extra challenges that require different sorts of support to keep the lights on.
SACOSS CEO Ross Womersley said:
“Working to Make Ends Meet highlights with great precision, what we had assumed to be true: Australians living below the poverty line are struggling to pay their bills on time – if at all. This struggle is not due to a lack of budgeting or because they are frivolous with money. This report shows that a wage is not always enough to get by, particularly if you have a single income and a large family, you can’t get enough work, or the hours are variable, or you can’t work more hours because you are caring for the kids. For many people, the employment opportunities just aren’t there to ‘get a better job’!
“If you’re paid for 38 hours one week, then only offered three hours the next – how are you supposed to pay your bills? Simply, you can’t. And if you need petrol to get work, and the electricity bill is due – how do you make that choice?
“SACOSS has long been concerned about the prohibitive costs of energy on all households in South Australia, but especially concerned for those surviving on low incomes. There are many ways that we can address these, but sometimes those who most need to access those cost-savings can’t because of issues with eligibility for available concessions, lack of understanding from energy retailers, and/or lack of access to the support required to make initial, significant investments in more energy efficient appliances or other energy saving measures.”
The final report includes four case studies, but draws from the lived experience of 18 unique households in Adelaide metropolitan and regional areas as well as ABS national statistical data. Here are some of those voices:
“It still amazes me that it's [the electricity bill is] $600 or $700. I'm like, but we've been at work and we've been at school and I've flipped all the power points off. You know, the only thing that's going is the fridge, but why is our electricity still $600 and $700? It still amazes me that it still amounts to that much even when we're not home as well.” (Heather, 50, single, 1 child, mortgage, 1 x part-time income)
“Sometimes we don't eat well because there might only be noodles or a bit of rice and few little veggies... And like today's payday. Yesterday the boys had popcorn for lunch and that's what we do.” (Betty, 50s, single, 2 adult children, mortgage, 1 x part-time income)
“I try to pay it [electricity bill] on time because they give you a huge discount and it sucks because the people that can't afford to pay it on time anyway. I think I've probably missed one or I had to ring up and go into a payment agreement with them. And that was the winter one that sort of shocked me a bit because it was over $600.” (Betty, 50s, single, 2 adult children, mortgage, 1 x part-time)
“His running shoes... I'll tell you how I pay for them, that's walking the streets at two/three o'clock in the morning, so no one sees me, collecting cans.” (Paul, 52, couple with one child, renting, 1 x full-time, 1 x part-time income)
“I guess it comes down to being able to actually afford energy efficient appliances because they are so much more expensive. The star rating on the fridge and the washing machine is like one or something or two, one half. I don’t know. That’s a huge barrier to be able to be energy efficient.” (Deborah, 37, single, renting, irregular casual)
The summary and full report are available here.