The Hidden Face of Poverty
Poverty has many faces – the gaunt child refugee from Yemen, the homeless, mentally ill man begging on the street, the single mother battling to make ends meet and the young woman without work and family support. The new face of poverty in countries of the West is, however, the older woman.
Women over 60 are the fastest growing cohort in Australia and research indicates that they are 80% more likely than men to be impoverished, particularly if they have no support, other than the pension. One in three older women are living in income poverty in Australia. Widows and divorced women are especially vulnerable to poverty and homelessness if they do not own their own home. Mary, emerged from a very messy divorce case with no home, few savings, a car and a job as a librarian. For the next 6 months she had a hidden life going “home” each evening to her car which contained all her worldly possessions. Education and employment were not sufficient to enable her to compete in the rental market place.
Recent discussions in Australia have highlighted, yet again, the gender divide when it comes to equal pay for equal work. Women still receive about 83% of the male wage for the same work; they are more likely to have had part time or casual work and have limited superannuation. They live longer and are more likely to be divorced than 40 years ago.
Because women’s participation in the labour force is interrupted by child bearing, caring for children and aging parents it is estimated that most women retire with around a third of the superannuation men accrue. Government benefits account for 60% of their income. They are, said former Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan, “paying the price for a life time of gender discrimination.”
Not only is there gender discrimination but also age discrimination when it comes to older women finding employment. It is estimated that there are over half a million women who are poor, single and healthy but unable to find work. With no work, no home ownership and limited savings older women quickly spiral down into homelessness.
If more women are not to sink below the poverty line governments and civil society must be prepared to put in place protections for older people, and women in particular. St Vincent de Paul recommends 15% of all new developments be set aside for affordable housing. Business must be encouraged to employ older workers and provide more flexible working arrangements. Apart from the obvious social and humane benefits, safe housing and employment for older women make important economic contributions to society.
Above all else it is important to acknowledge the contribution these women have made to families, work places and organisations through the hours of care, voluntary and paid work and recognise their dignity and the wisdom they have to offer society.
Words: Coordinator Loreto JPIC, Libby Rogerson ibvm