Older women and poverty

Older single women represent the changing face of homelessness says a new Anglicare report 2015 State of the Family report, Who is being left behind?


Speaking at the launch of the report during Anti-Poverty Week (11-17 October 2015), Anglicare Executive Director, Kasy Chambers said, “But when you look closely at how people’s lives pan out, as we do in this report, it’s clear the right support at the right time can make the difference.


The report said in part that older single women represent the changing face of homelessness; experiencing homelessness for the first time later in life. Most have limited financial resources and assets and are unable to hold their place in a housing market which is becoming increasingly unaffordable .


Some face the prospect of homelessness after leaving the workforce and having insufficient superannuation or savings, and are forced to rely solely on the age pension. Other women have their financial world thrown into disarray when they leave a marriage with an income-earning spouse.


Anecdotally, it is know that the instances of older women experiencing unstable housing are on the rise, however determining the magnitude of this issue is complicated by the often ‘hidden’ experiences of older women.


Older women experiencing housing crisis are likely to be staying with friends, living in vehicles, or living under threat of violence in their homes due to a lack of viable alternatives.


Such arrangements are often not captured within the official counts of homelessness, but there is no disputing this is an emerging trend, and one that must be urgently addressed.


As a society, we have a clear moral and social obligation to support anyone experiencing homelessness. This obligation is arguably greater when the group affected experiences homelessness as a direct result of poor policy.


What can be done?

The report outlines that older women at retirement age report having an average of 57 per cent less superannuation than men, a situation particularly pronounced for older single women, many of whom are heavily dependent on the age pension.


‘Caring credit’ schemes have been suggested as one means of addressing this imbalance. These schemes credit carers’ pension programs or funds while they are out of the workforce caring for children or older parents. Through appropriately recognising and rewarding this valuable caring role, it may contribute to the prevention of housing insecurity among older women, although they are unlikely to significantly impact those women already facing such situations.


Integrated responses needed

With housing a matter of state/territory responsibility, and ageing a matter for the Commonwealth, the two have typically been developed separately in a policy sense. Recent aged care reform has strengthened integration somewhat by including homelessness reforms within its mandate. But many commentators suggest that housing should be at the centre of ageing policy. A focus on affordable housing they argue is the logical preventative approach that connects ageing and homelessness policy.


Private social housing may be the key response to older people experiencing housing crisis. One recent initiative that has demonstrated effectiveness in tackling the supply issues of affordable and accessible housing for older people is the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS). The NRAS is designed to increase affordable rental housing by offering financial incentives to businesses and community organisations when they either build dwellings or rent to low-to-moderate income earners.


What we do have now though is the opportunity to ensure history does not keep repeating; that older women of the future aren’t forced to seek crisis accommodation at a time when they are most vulnerable and least able to assert their independence, physically and financially.


See the report at http://www.anglicare.asn.au/userfiles/SOTF15_interactive%281%29.pdf


12 October 2015.