Australians could be forgiven for thinking pensioners are the only poverty stricken group in the country given media coverage in the last week.

Media Monitors recorded 7283 mentions of pensioners between September 12 and 19.

It might come as a surprise to hear that the Catholic Church — who provide a major role in assisting and supporting needy Australians — did not name pensioners in their annual report, which by comparison only received 500 mentions.

The 2008 Australian Catholic Social Justice Statement was released on Wednesday, identifying the greatest social justice issue facing our country right now as poverty — but not poverty amongst pensioners.

The statement names indigenous Australians; the working poor — particularly single parents; refugees and asylum seekers; the homeless – especially the young, mentally ill, and recently released prisoners as key groups in need of assistance.

The statement said:

However we define “poverty” or “disadvantage”, there are some clear indicators that Australia’s care for the less fortunate has not kept pace with the economic growth we have enjoyed over the last 15 years. It was found that, in 2006, according to the most stringent definitions of poverty accepted by international research, 2,210,000 Australians, or 11.1 per cent of the population, were living below the poverty line. This figure included 412,000 children.

A quick look at a single parent’s online forum provides a snapshot of the strategies adopted by poor Australians to survive on Centrelink payments.

One single parent said:

Nothing’s getting better, but it’s not continuing to get worse like it was under the Howard Regime … The Rudd government has continued with the untenable legislation and policies brought in by the Howard government. The situation is desperate and there is no way out for many families.

And that’s if you have an address — which is necessary to receive Centrelink payments. The social justice statement emphasises that homelessness, particularly for young Australians and the mentally ill, needs urgent addressing: “It is unacceptable that amid the affluence of this nation 100, 000 people are homeless. Over 6, 500 families and 10, 000 children under the age of 12 are among this number.”

Mission Australia’s chief executive Toby Hall says that while youth homelessness has actually gone down in recent years, the housing crisis has led to an increase in domestic violence and rising instances of homeless families — up 20% from 2001.

“There are 105, 000 homeless people in Australia – up 6,000 from 2001,” Hall said, “Our request for the white paper [the Rudd government’s Which Way Home] is an increased focus on early intervention, not just on crisis management.”

The Social Justice Statement also calls for attention to the plight of asylum seekers: “Many people in this situation have been denied social security payments and services or the right to work, leaving them reliant on assistance from welfare agencies and charities.”

Kate Gauthier from A Just Australia agreed, “At a minimum the government needs to provide them with the right to work.”

“The irony is that this would cost them nothing, and we’ve been asking them to spend less in the last year. It costs $13, 000 to keep someone in detention and $56 a day to keep them in the community.”

Refugee Council of Australia CEO Paul Power told Crikey there needed to be greater settlement support for asylum seekers, and less of a focus on detention.

Power said, “They are amongst the most disadvantaged people in Australia.”

Power acknowledged that approaches by both the former Howard government and the Rudd government have improved steadily since the Cornelia Rau affair in 2005.

“The number of people now in detention is about 200, in 2001 it was something like 3,000.”

“There are constructive, more positive and cheaper alternatives to detention that have worked. It is important that every effort is made to ensure alternatives to detention are offered and reviewed.”

Peter Fray

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