While the stereotypical face of poverty is a older man – a lifetime down on his luck, the fastest growing demographic of people experiencing homelessness is single women over the age of 55.
For 15 years StreetSmart has been funding smaller grassroots organisations on the front line of community services. In recent years we have supported a number of services that are raising alarm bells about the scale of the issue, and the need for urgent reform.
The Women and Girls Emergency Centre provides specialist support for older women, many seeking help for the first time. Program worker Rebecca Wilschefski explained their program supports ‘women who can be up to 70 years old and experiencing homeless first time. It’s hard for anyone, but to be entering a refuge for the first time at such a late age can be a really difficult experience.’
According to the latest HILDA Survey, women over 60 are the lowest earning of all demographic groups nationally. Having led conventional lives, raised families, worked part time or in unpaid roles – running the school tuck shop or caring for elderly parents – women have retired with less savings and assets than men their age.
On average women will enter retirement with about half the superannuation a man does. Practically speaking, that means that the average man can live for 22 years on superannuation, while a woman can live for just 12.
“There is a large cohort of women who don’t have superannuation, and they don’t have housing security. Women aged 55 to 65 and sometimes older, are not eligible for the Aged Pension and are subsisting on NewStart allowance”, April Bragg from the Housing for the Aged Action Group explained. “Most of the women have faced years of age discrimination in the workplace, and some women are now in their seventies still fiercely holding on to their part time jobs – fearful of what will happen without that source of income.”
While it is clear that women are victim to lifelong structural settings that have undermined their financial security – the state of the housing market is what is pushing so many women from housing stress into homelessness.
Women who are retiring now are dovetailing a bloated housing market that offers just 1.62% private properties nationally that are affordable to a single person dependant on the Aged Pension, with a withering social housing stock, and governments still taking a decades long nap behind the wheel – older women are paying the price.
Most of the women who present to us are those unable to maintain private rental, apart from limited income high rental prices consume practically all of their income. Many have fallen into ill
“Many women who present to us are unable to maintain private rental, which with such high rental prices can consume practically all of their income. Many have fallen into illness after spending a lifetime caring for others, and are now left without the financial security to care for themselves”, says Bragg.
While a woman born in the sixties has certainly faced more outright discrimination than her daughters – the situation has not so radically changed. Women still make up over two-thirds of Australia’s primary carers, 70 percent of the part time workforce and earn 87c out of every dollar a man does.
With less in the bank, and socio-economic policies that continue to disadvantage women’s financial independence – we should be paying more attention to the experience of the women who came before us, and fighting with them for a better deal.
Wilschefski says there needs to be policy change to ensure women enter mature age with the financial and housing support they need. “If you cannot remain in or re-enter the workforce, cannot claim the Aged Pension, and have no retirement savings because you’ve been in and out of the workforce caring for others – it’s a real poverty trap and it needs to be urgently addressed.”
Our government has a responsibility to ensure policy does not arbitrarily consign women to destitution when they enter older age. There is also a moral responsibility to support women who have helped to a raise generation, and shape a more gender equal future. These are women who have contributed enormously to this country, and who our society owes a great debt. It’s imperative that we do better.
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