ABOUT half a million older Australians – or one-third of those on the age pension – are living below the poverty line, according to a new report.
Poverty for some means skipping meals to pay for medication, blending meals which can be swallowed because dental care is unaffordable, and turning off the hot water during summer months.
“The age pension in Australia is clearly inadequate. That is an indisputable fact and the Government has to face up to that fact,” Brisbane’s 85-year-old Everald Compton, chairman of the Longevity Innovation Hub and co-author of the new report, The Adequacy of the Age Pension in Australia: An Assessment of Pensioner Living Standards, said.
The report reinforces the message contained in the annual Social Justice Statement recently released by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference with a focus on “ageing”.
That statement, A Place at the Table: Social justice in an ageing society, is a call to action to face a threefold challenge – to work for an inclusive society that brings older people into the heart of the community; to ensure the dignity and care of people who are frail and most vulnerable to neglect or abuse; and to foster solidarity among all generations, recognising the special affinity that exists between young and old.
“Old age and frailty will come to us all eventually, and we will need the help and support of others,” ACBC Social Justice Council chairman Parramatta Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen said.
“This is a time when we must see a just society in action. We must challenge the individualism and consumerism of modern society that gives rise to what Pope Francis calls a ‘throw-away’ culture.”
For Mr Compton and the co-authors of the age pension report, protecting our elderly and vulnerable demands radical change.
In the words of one Toowoomba-based pensioner who took part in a focus group for the report: “Life is not worth living unless it has some quality. Just surviving is not a good life.”
The report calls for an independent tribunal to assess pension adequacy twice a year, and recommends a suitable level, increases in rent assistance, better dental services and a broadband supplement to pensioners.
The base rate pension stands at $794.80 a fortnight for a single person and $599.10 for each member of a couple.
The minimum wage is $1345 per fortnight while average monthly earnings is $2320.
The poverty line is $851 a fortnight.
Benevolent Society chief executive officer and a co-author of the report Jo Toohey said: “The bottom line is, if you are a single person receiving the age pension and you are not entitled to rent assistance because you own your own home … then your living income is $56 below the poverty line.”
Ms Toohey said a third of the 1.5 million pensioners who lived solely on the age pension lived at or below the poverty line.
“The very ordinary demands of contemporary Australian life place so much stress on their finances that many of them are teetering constantly on the edge of poverty and deprivation,” she said.
The report identified some key factors.
Home ownership is the most important single determinant of pensioner financial wellbeing.
Those renting pay out a substantial part of their pension before considering other expenses.
Report recommendations will cost $2 billion a year. It points to potential savings of $8 billion a year through a range of measures, some deeply controversial.
That includes cutting negative gearing, capital gains and superannuation tax concessions.
Co-author and the executive director of the Per Capita think tank David Hetherington said pricing an adequate pension was extraordinarily difficult because pensioners had diverse circumstances.
Based on focus group responses the report notes that just $50 a week more could make a material difference to many pensioners.
One pensioner living alone mentioned being able to afford a pet for company and security.
Another wrote: “… If there was an increment of $50 I believe the living standard would be much better. People could afford the food they would like instead of having to take food from charities …” And a Toowoomba pensioner said: “After paying major bills, we have $180 a fortnight to live on.”
The ACBC ageing statement notes that the number of Australians aged 65 and over will more than double from 3.6 million today to 8.9 million by the middle of the century.
The statement notes that “where once retirement was considered a period of rest and declining health, we now speak of ‘active ageing’ in an ‘extended life course’ – a transition through the 50s to the 80s, with changing activities and concerns as time goes on”.
“Stereotypes of older people as doddering, out of touch or dependent are false and dehumanising,” Bishop Long said. “People are not commodities, to be valued only for their productivity or purchasing power.
“We must never forget that the older person before us is a spouse, a parent, a brother or sister, a friend, and most importantly, a son or daughter of God. All of us are created in the image and likeness of God, and are called to have our rightful place at the table He has prepared.”
Social Justice Sunday is marked today, September 25.
The full Social Justice Statement is available online at: http://www.socialjustice.catholic.org.au.
By Mark Bowling