Opinion: Achieving equality is a wicked problem we need to solve
Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that your elderly grandmother, aunt or sister does not have a secure and safe place to sleep tonight, or any night. She does not have a place to call her home. She is homeless.
Globally, more and more women are thriving within their circumstances, with record numbers achieving gender and pay parity, or well progressed on the journey to do so. However, a very significant number of older Australian women are facing an uncertain and highly stressful future.
Why do we all urgently need to turn our minds to this increasing problem? Because ensuring all Australians have access to safe and appropriate housing is a fundamental human need, and crucial to achieving a prosperous economy and enabled communities.
Truly achieving equality is a wicked problem – women tend to take significant breaks from the workforce to care for children and often, ageing parents. Not only does this mean a break(s) in periods of income generation, it means a break in superannuation contributions. These act as highly impactful barriers to women achieving financial and social equality across their lifetime.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘an equal world is an enabled world’ – and how true it is. Equality amongst community members not only enables an improved quality of life but gives people the ability to actively contribute to their community with value and purpose. However, at the nub of this wicked problem is the achievement of a truly equal world for all.
As hard as it may be to imagine your grandmother not having safe and secure accommodation, for an increasing number of older Australian women this is indeed the awful reality. In fact, women over 50 years old are the fastest growing group of Australians at risk of homelessness, with a 31 per cent increase evidenced since 2011. Rising numbers and stretched resources meant during 2019 the YMCA were unable to assist more than 400 women in need of safety and protection, an extremely sad situation.
Yes, the world has changed dramatically and positively for many Australian women, but let’s remember that for women over 50 many of the positive changes have simply arrived too late to impact some critical variables that could potentially re-direct their futures. Their lives have already been irrevocably impacted by: pay inequity and periods without income; divorce or loss of a partner; family violence; the accumulation of little or no superannuation and little or no savings; an unaffordable private rental market; and/or eviction, and a lack of affordable and appropriate housing.
Welfare payments are simply not designed for this particular group. As well as not having the runway to change the course of their lives, they cannot accumulate the necessary superannuation balance nor source secure employment, which means no income and no ability to secure appropriate accommodation. As a result of their life experiences, many will need to survive on some level of welfare support, and circa $40 per day does not enable a secure life with access to adequate accommodation, healthcare and necessary living requirements.
The entire premise of the Age Pension was built on the assumption that individuals will own their homes at the point of retirement, and therefore will need less income to survive.
In addition to the impact of financial and available accommodation shortfalls many women have pets for companionship and safety. A significant number of vulnerable women choose to sleep in their cars or even on the street to avoid being separated from their beloved pets.
How on earth can this group of vulnerable women achieve equality in their world, which is fundamentally not equal? How do we achieve an equal world, and therefore an enabled world, for vulnerable women in our communities? Firstly, we need to accept that so many potentially positive changes, such as parental leave strategies and increasing compulsory superannuation contributions will do little, if anything, to directly impact ageing vulnerable women.
Policy makers setting the equality agenda need to urgently consider specific strategies geared towards vulnerable women (and men), to ensure they can live safe and secure lives and continue to contribute to their communities in meaningful, respected and purposeful ways. Such strategies include the building (and maintenance) of affordable, appropriate housing within supported and existing communities (approximately 720,000 new homes are required to address demand during the next 20 years), and the review of welfare payments available to ageing women, to ensure they are able to fund appropriate, secure housing, healthcare and broader support services.
Importantly, it only takes a small, genuine action from each of us as often as possible, to make a positive difference to someone impacted by disadvantage or vulnerability; with the ripple effect impacting the evolution of better communities. We are all equal members of our communities. Right now, vulnerable people are at genuine risk of being left behind in our fast-paced world. Australians now, more than ever, must come together to demonstrate care, compassion and kindness to ensure all community members have a place to call home.