x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

More down at heel Down Under

Welfare groups in Australia say the global credit meltdown is pushing more people into poverty amid a surge of home repossessions and fears about rising unemployment.

Naomi Hall, right, and June Wells talk about their economic problems in the St Thomas's Anglican Church in Cranebrook, Sydney.
Naomi Hall, right, and June Wells talk about their economic problems in the St Thomas's Anglican Church in Cranebrook, Sydney.

SYDNEY // Welfare groups in Australia say the global credit meltdown is pushing more people into poverty amid a surge of home repossessions and fears about rising unemployment. Charities said many poorer Australians are in a "kind of perpetual recession" having missed out on the economic booms of the past 15 years and are becoming even worse off. "One would think that this is a nation that oozes prosperity and opportunity," said John Falzon, from the St Vincent de Paul Society. "For many people this has been the case but it is the reality that many others have been excluded and pushed to the margins."

While there are no government figures showing the extent of poverty in the country, the UN's 2006 Human Poverty Index showed 2.8 million (14.3 per cent of the population) lived in poverty, which was defined as those living on less than 50 per cent of the median income. Parts of the Cranebrook estate in western Sydney are among Australia's most disadvantaged areas. On a damp summer's afternoon, an elderly woman toils with her shopping bags as she walks past a pile of discarded furniture and while tired-looking housing commission apartments sit beside unkempt back gardens, there are few outward signs of the struggle that has engulfed the lives of many residents.

"I don't cope. I get very depressed and upset," said June Wills, 67. Increases in the cost of electricity and food have crippled her meagre pension and tears fall down her face as she explains how after buying bare essentials she is left with just AUS$20 (Dh50) a fortnight. "Many times I've had to ask for help. It's a real effort for me because I'm a very proud person. I just feel like giving up." Australia's once vibrant economy, powered by exports of iron ore and coal to China, is on the slide and although the country is expected narrowly to avoid falling into a recession, the slowdown will cause hardship.

Unemployment rose to 4.4 per cent in November, its highest level in a year, and Rev Richard Goscombe, the minister at St Thomas's Anglican Church in Cranebrook, believes that worse is to come. "What people are starting to say is whereas three or four years ago the last time they were out of work or changing jobs, it was very easy to get back into the workforce. Now it's completely different. People are not hiring as readily and it's amazing how quickly the situation has changed," he said. "People are conscious that if things should really start to bite, especially in terms of employment, they have very little to keep them through tough times." Cranebrook lies within sight of the Blue Mountains on the fringes of Australia's biggest city. Amid the pockets of deprivation, there are tidy middle class enclaves, where homeowners are also feeling the pinch. "We've always found it difficult to make ends meet," said Naomi Hall, 36, a mother-of-two who works part-time. "My husband is not on a very high wage, so it's always been a struggle." There is an overwhelming feeling in Cranebrook, from pensioners to young families, that more financial pain will be inflicted on them, whether it is a reduction in government services, higher unemployment or rising grocery bills. There is also anger that global problems should cause them so much grief. "People experience a level of resentment," Mr Goscombe said. "They have sought to play the game by the rules and yet they witness these people, these nameless faces that manipulate world markets and refuse to play by the rules and are bailed out by multibillion dollar rescue packages from relevant governments and many of the people who have a mortgage and own a small business look at that and think, 'When I go to the wall, who's going to be there to bail me out?'" As the threat of harder economic times looms, some welfare workers believe a slump could force Australians to rethink their views about poverty and be more understanding of those caught in its grip. Often recipients of state benefits are seen as "bludgers" rather than vulnerable, alienated people sidelined by circumstances beyond their control. "This is a great opportunity to discover the silver lining of this cloud - a real turnaround in our attitudes to poverty and marginalisation," Mr Falzon said. "During the economic boom times in Australia it was very tempting for mainstream commentary to promote successfully the myth that people could be to blame for their own disadvantage. This is simply not the case." pmercer@thenational.ae