Australia: Report of older single women’s extreme risk of poverty may see aged pension overhaul Print E-mail
The Sydney Morning Herald ~~ Friday March 21 2008

Women face extreme risk of poverty in old age

Mark Metherell

Before you judge her ....... walk a mile in her shoes

AGEING single women are more likely than men to miss out on the golden years, scrimping along without superannuation and on an unfairly frugal pension, a report to the Senate says.

The Senate's Community Affairs Committee has demanded an overhaul of the age pension, identifying single pensioners, particularly women, as those "at extreme risk of falling into poverty".

Older single women tend to have missed out on compulsory superannuation and must rely on a pension that is low by English-speaking countries' standards.

They receive a pension of $546.80 a fortnight, compared with the $913.60 for couples, even though many fixed costs such as rates, rents and bills vary little between singles and couples.

The meagre payment meant pensioners were often reduced to relying on donations of food from friends and even, according to one inquiry witness, to "raiding dumpsters to retrieve bread, fruit, vegetables … and sometimes meat" discarded by grocery chains. Others told the inquiry of going to bed early to cut heating bills, and forgoing social visits to or from friends because of transport and meal costs.

The committee agreed to a bipartisan verdict acknowledging pensions had increased in real terms in the past decade. But after hundreds of submissions the committee said the comparatively widespread prosperity "obscures the fact that the distribution of wealth among many older Australians is unbalanced".

Many Australians, particularly those on low, fixed incomes with little discretionary spending capacity, were vulnerable to living cost rises. They were disproportionately affected by increases in essential goods and services: food, rent, petrol, utilities and health care. Growing medical and pharmaceutical costs and the lack of affordable dental services were disturbing.

"These older Australians do not enjoy a decent quality of life," the committee said.

The committee's call for a rethink on the level of the pension and the way it is calculated triggered a chorus of calls from seniors groups for the single pension to be lifted from the current 60 per cent to at least two-thirds of the couple rate.

The chief executive of National Seniors Australia, Michael O'Neill, said the findings "confirm what every pensioner knows: living on a pension has become almost impossible unless you have additional income".

The Government late yesterday signalled that it would consider lifting the single pension.

The Minister for Families and Community Services, Jenny Macklin, said the report highlighted that those who relied on the pension as their sole income were among those most in financial stress.