7 min read

Poverty isn't natural

Amid all the discussions about so-called ‘cost of living’, the costs of being poor, of being disabled, rarely trouble those pontificating
Plants in a field with mountains and a blue sky with clouds in the background. Text says poverty isn't natural

Economic marginalisation series post 1

Amid all the discussions about so-called ‘cost of living’, the costs of being poor, of being disabled, rarely trouble those pontificating about negative gearing or overseas travel or whether people are rich if they earn over $200K per year (they are).

People struggling to keep a roof over their head, to eat, to get medical care, to survive on income support - they are the ones with the costs, and they are the same folks who aren’t highlighted in the opinion pages.

Disabled people are poor, disproportionately so. We also remain poor, and our families are poor. We rely on income support, are excluded from employment and face enormous costs to just exist.

I first went on to the Disability Support Pension (DSP), in the 1990s when I was in my early twenties, thanks to a persistent social worker and hospital nurses who figured out that I was starving and couldn’t afford the medical care I needed, which was part of why I was on my fourth hospital admission in 18 months, incredibly unwell.

I’d been trying to survive on Youth Allowance/Austudy while at Uni, unable to work, and paying 70% of the payment on rent, walking everywhere to save on a busfare, with a serious, autoimmune disease ravaging my body. I was meant to buy medications, expensive creams and medicated shower washes that the doctors blithely prescribed without ever asking if I could pay for them.

The link between the poverty I was living in, and getting sicker was left to the nurses, then the social worker. There was yelling behind the scenes, I found out much later. 

The DSP changed my life profoundly. The higher income support, intended to cover some of the costs of being disabled, meant I ate regularly, filled my prescriptions, caught the bus, and even went to a movie occasionally. I didn’t completely stay out of hospital, but the trips got less frequent. I stayed on the DSP for 11 years, getting off solely because new drugs were invented that meant I could work full time again.

In 2015, I was back on the DSP, after nine months on JobSeeker, broken, distressed and incredibly unwell. There was no hospital anymore, no kind nurses or social worker, just an online session with a strange government doctor who freaked out at how sick I was. This time the DSP was barely enough to cover my rent, let alone do anything fancy like get medication or food. Robodebt was starting, and engaging with income support was much more difficult and punitive.

The changes to the DSP in the years I’d been out of the system have been profound, and incredibly damaging. About half of those on JobSeeker are now disabled people, and fewer and fewer get access to the higher DSP payment. All while costs are rising and employment isn’t any more accessible or inclusive.

Income support has been part of a lot of my adult life. This is true for many disabled and sick people, with poverty and economic insecurity a constant part of our lives. 

We have half the median income of non-disabled people and 44% of us get some kind of government payment, compared to 12% of non-disabled people. The more disabled we are, the more likely we are to have a lower income.

The 2004 Senate Inquiry into Poverty found that:

‘Poverty is particularly prevalent amongst people who have a disability due to a combination of factors including low incomes, fewer employment opportunities and additional costs due to their disability. Submissions noted that people with disabilities have lower workforce participation rates and are more likely to be unemployed than many other groups in the population.’

And because nothing ever changes, the current Senate Inquiry into Poverty’s interim report found that disabled people were a group much more likely to live in poverty.

Alongside being poor, disabled people also have a higher cost of living, with research showing that “current poverty measures do not take into account disability, therefore, they fail to consider substantial differences in poverty rates between people with and without a disability.” Another study found that “living with a disability may cost an additional several thousand dollars per year”. Yep.

Yet both our lack of income and our higher expenses don’t get a mention in mainstream political measures to address rising costs. Why? I suspect it’s the same reason it always is - we aren’t seen as equal, part of the community. And our poverty is seen as natural, because we are disabled. There is nothing natural about this.

The Disability Royal Commission barely raised being poor in its final report, ignoring the role of economic injustice in the neglect and exploitation of disabled people, let alone why disability and poverty are so closely linked.

In the causes of violence, the DRC says that “people with disability can be set on a life trajectory of compounding maltreatment, as increasing disadvantage in turn increases the risk of maltreatment.” Go on, name that poverty, I dare you. 

The Disability Support Pension (DSP) is discussed briefly, including evidence from public hearings and disabled people’s concerns about the potential cost of losing access to vital concessions as income increased, and employers in Australian Disability Enterprises scaring disabled people into accepting low wages by saying that meant they could keep their DSP.

But JobSeeker and other income support payments are not discussed at all, neither the changes to eligibility for the DSP, with many fewer disabled people now getting access to the higher payment.

There is no discussion about poverty, about the generations of disabled people who have been shut out of the workforce and have relied on income support. I know this wasn’t because disabled people and their organisations didn’t tell the Royal Commission about that, so it’s a significant choice to make.

Even the volume on employment doesn’t mention poverty. Sigh

Poverty is not a natural outcome of disability, or becoming disabled, yet is treated as such. Our exclusion and marginalisation from economic life isn’t questioned because our bodies and minds aren’t wanted. The very embedded violence of that assumption, and its consequences, remains unexamined and unquestioned and unanswered.

In fact, some have argued that our very economic systems rely on disabled people being poor, being excluded. Marta Russell wrote about how the category of disability came about through the industrial revolution, and the creation of the ideal non-disabled body for this new kind of work. 

She traced how previous labour systems allowed for different bodies and minds. But these new factories and production lines, as well as creating new disability through catastrophic injury and pollution, had no room for anyone less than able. 

Russell wrote in her book Capitalism and Disability:

'Industrial capitalism thus created…a new class of ‘disabled’ who did not conform to the standard worker’s body and whose labor-power was effectively erased, excluded from paid work. As a result, disabled persons came to be regarded as a social problem and a justification emerged for segregating them out of mainstream life.’

This isn’t a fringe idea, or something that isn’t well understood, both in left and mainstream political and economic thought. Disabled people being structurally marginalised for several centuries, alongside eugenics, are central to understanding why violence happens to us today. And yet, this is magically absent from the DRC report, despite the terms of reference clearly calling for them to consider the causes of this violence.

And as always, the violence of this poverty and exclusion lands hardest on those most marginalised - First Nations disabled people, people with an intellectual disability, disabled people who have been in prison, those without families, folks with a psychosocial disability.

The NDIS Review final report also didn’t talk about disabled people and poverty, but in the supporting documentation, they do name this as a key driver for people needing access to the NDIS, and to the to-be-developed foundational supports. They said that the evidence showed the importance of:

  • ‘Increasing the availability and accessibility of foundational supports – so that all people with disability, regardless of whether they have a NDIS individualised budgets or not, can access the right supports, at the right time and place, and can achieve their potential.
  • Undertaking reforms to tackle key contributors of poverty – including increasing employment opportunities for people with disability.
  • Identifying and supporting more innovative and inclusive approaches to shift the continual under-representation of people with disability in the workforce.’ [p70]

But that is about it across both reports.

I’ll talk more about employment specifically in later posts, and while the persistence, and generational nature of the employment exclusion is talked about in both reports, the WHY of this isn’t tackled much at all. 

What is it about our workplaces that exclude disabled people so strongly, and so clearly, and for so long? Why has this been the case for decades? What has been the impact on disabled people of being poor for so long?

This exclusion isn’t natural, these barriers are put up by people and systems and can be torn down. Disabled people are kept in poverty through the violence of neglect and discrimination.

And what are the real measures we can do to change this? The first is to make sure that disabled people have enough money to live on. The second is dealing with the costs of that living. That means not paying most on rent or other housing costs, that means access to medical and disability supports. And the third means getting real about employment, including making sure people can try work without losing access to income support.

None of these kinds of changes are new, or something I’ve just thought of. Anti-poverty groups have recommended them along with disability organisations and disabled people in a myriad of inquiries over decades. 

The question is though, were they in any part of the two big reports that will influence disability policy in this country for a decade? Read on in this series to see.

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