This report is from a study of poverty in Australia in 2020 and 2021, the first two years of Australian responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on the experiences and insights of people in poverty during that time. The researchers aimed to explore the lived experiences of poverty among people who were most vulnerable to the shocks to public health and the economy brought by the pandemic, and the accompanying impacts on health, education, housing, and social participation. They also aimed to analyse the benefits and strengths of policy responses designed to increase the robustness and scope of the social safety net during this time, and lessons that could be learnt from these responses for longer-term policy change.

The project uses two primary sources of qualitative data to meet these aims: interviews with people who have experienced poverty, and published research with service providers and others who work with people living in poverty.

The researchers asked people to talk about the most important changes that COVID-19 made to their lives, and the most important support they had received during this time. The strongest responses to these questions were around housing, the Coronavirus Supplement, and capacity to work.

The perspectives of service providers show that the escalation of needs, including for fundamental provisions such as food and accommodation, compounded difficulties for people in poverty at a time when many if not most people were also experiencing social isolation, fear, and uncertainty. Some groups were especially vulnerable to longstanding and novel risks of harm. At the same time, changes to service delivery and persistent efforts to maintain relationships and support were able in some circumstances to produce positive experiences and outcomes.

Key findings:

  • People experiencing poverty felt the same pandemic stresses as people with more resources, including concern for older relatives and educating children at home, but the negative effects of isolation hit them harder. For example, their access to the online services that many people used to ease loneliness and stress were restricted. 
  • The pandemic ‘heightened and worsened’ damaging experiences many already had including isolation and fragile health as many were confined in poor-quality homes. 
  • Being at home had an impact on expenses, and earlier research found that energy bills increased for some groups living on low incomes. Stay at home orders also increased the risk of domestic and family violence for some people. 
  • Parenting stress was particularly acute among migrant families because they were more likely to be experiencing financial hardship, ineligible for JobKeeper and found home learning harder.
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