Monday, October 17, 2016

Celebrating Anti-Poverty week with smashed avocado on toast

Welcome to Anti-Poverty Week 2016. Everyone is encouraged to help reduce poverty and hardship by organising or taking part in an activity during the week (October 16-22).

He might not have meant to, but Bernard Salt got us off to an early start on Saturday, over at The Weekend Australian. Salt penned a provocative piece about how “Middle-Aged Moralisers” - a term with which he identifies - don’t like hipster cafes. He set off a small Twitter storm for his trouble. Quite aside from their poor quality furnishings and their complex approach to gender rules on toilet doors, Salt drew the most ire for his observation that hipster cafes are charging $22 a pop for smashed avocado on toast, and that young-people-who-haven’t-yet-bought-houses should not be paying for such frivolities. Instead, they should be directing all that hard-earned towards a deposit for a home-loan.

Now some might argue that the day young hipster-folk stop trading smashed avocado lunches is the day the Australian economy dies, and poverty comes a-calling for us all. But Salt does have a point. According to a study released by the Australian Council of Social Services yesterday, one of the surest ways to avoid poverty in Australia is to own your own home. Only 15.5% of the three-million Australians living below the poverty line in 2014 were home-owners, while 59.7% were renting.

Saving your money to buy a house may seem like a good wisdom, but many in the “haven’t-yet-bought-houses” category have already sat through that lecture. Amid confusion about whether the number of first home-buyers entering the market is very low or even lower, Salt's screed is just another reminder of the impending poverty of old age.

For those apparently well-off enough to feel the stigma and shame of not-buying-houses, rising property values are nothing to cheer about. Many who can’t afford a home today probably won’t be able to afford it again tomorrow, and will experience increasing levels of poverty and inequality as they struggle to meet rising rents. Even having a job is no guarantee of the good life - in 2014, about a third of Australians living below the poverty line were wage earners. But for those who can’t get a job, and those whose working days are behind them, the cost of housing will always be the biggest barrier to financial wellbeing.

So, for the three-million Australians who already live below the poverty line, and the countless others who will join them in the fullness of time, doing something about housing affordability will make a critical difference. Building much more Social Housing, inserting meaningful Affordable Housing targets into our planning laws, and fixing our various tax settings would be a good start.

Even if we did all of this today, slowing the growth of housing costs would take some time. Making a couple of quick changes to our renting laws would also help: allowing tenants a genuine option to challenge unreasonable rent increases, so they may respond to landlords' price signals in a manner other than moving out; and removing landlords' ability to end tenancies without a reason so that tenants will have some security in their homes for as long as they meet the terms of their agreements, and their properties remain available for rent.

In the meantime... the smashed avo looks pretty good today, if you can afford it.

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