Australia is a wealthy nation, yet this wealth is not spread equitably. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) economic inequality is the difference in how assets, wealth, or income are distributed among individuals and/or populations, as well as the gap between rich and poor, income inequality, wealth disparity, wealth and income differences, or the wealth gap (OECD, 2019a). People are classified as being in poverty “when their household’s disposable (after-tax) income falls below a level considered inadequate to achieve an acceptable standard of living” (Davidson, Saunders, Bradbury & Wong, 2018, p. 18). Whilst, analysis of trends reveals that poverty in Australia is decreasing over time (OECD, 2019b), compared to the 34 other OECD countries, of which Australia is a member, there is an above average rate of Australians who live in households with incomes below the poverty line, which is set at 50% of the median household income for all Australians. Furthermore, Australia is ranked as having the 14th highest rate of poverty in this group (Davidson, Saunders, Bradbury & Wong, 2018).
Methods for measuring poverty differ. The ‘poverty line’ is used in most international studies and is set at 50% of the median household disposable income of the total population (OECD, 2015). The latest, 2015-16 poverty line, set by the OECD, for a single adult living alone is $433 a week, and for a couple with two children, it is set at $909 a week. These figures do not consider housing costs in the calculation, whereas the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS, 2018) prefers an ‘after-housing’ approach for calculating the poverty line, by also accounting for the cost of housing. ACOSS (2018) estimates that 3.05 million Australians (13.2% of the population) live below the poverty line, including 13.9% of young people aged 15-24. They also determine that the average ‘poverty gap’ (the mean difference between the incomes of people in poverty and the poverty line) is $135 per week.
Related to our interest in undergraduate student poverty, 64% of young people on Youth Allowance are reported by the Australian Council of Social Services (2018) to have an income that is below the poverty line, which includes young people who are on the ‘away from home’ rate of payment, and up to 25 years old if a fulltime student. Youth Allowance is also the lowest income support payment available, set at $285 per week (including Rent Assistance) and “reflects a policy view that young people can rely on financial support from their parents, though many paid at this rate have been assessed as financially independent” (ACOSS, 2018, p. 12).
The research team is committed to making the evidence from the 2018 Higher Education Accommodation and Financial Stress Survey available, to support and enhance the development of targeted programs and policies for university students who are facing issues related to poverty. Whether it be the non-government organisation who is finding university students increasingly showing up within their mix of clients requiring support, or the university lecturer who has a student not turning up to class due to the pressure of needing to work, a collective effort, across education, government and community is necessary to ensure all students from all socioeconomic backgrounds can benefit from a university education.