Revealed: the minimum income for a healthy life and how the dole falls way short

Illustration: Peter Riches

Illustration: Peter Riches

COMMENT

Speaking of the cost of living, how much do you need to live on? Surveys show most people's answer is: just a bit more than I'm getting at present. Trouble is, they keep saying that no matter how much their income rises.

One way to convince yourself you're not doing all that well is to compare what you earn with people of your acquaintance who're earning a lot more than you.

A better assessment would be to compare your finances with those of people a lot closer to the bottom – if only you knew any.

Not to worry. On Wednesday, Professor Peter Saunders and Megan Bedford, of the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW, will publish new "budget standards" for low-paid and unemployed Australians.

Read more: Households on verge of mortgage crisis as ‘perfect storm’ hits

The study was funded by the Australian Research Council, with a quarter of the cost covered by donations from Catholic Social Services Australia, the United Voice union and the Australian Council of Social Service.

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John Shakespeare

In a painstaking exercise, the researchers have put together, and costed, the baskets of goods and services different-sized families at these income levels would need to allow each individual – adult or child – to lead a fully healthy life.

So it's not a poverty line and it does take account of prevailing community standards, but it's the minimum amount required to satisfy basic needs.

"There is no allowance for even the most modest or occasional 'luxuries' and wastage was kept to an absolute minimum. The budgets are thus extremely tight," the researchers say.

For instance, low-income families are assumed to have a car, but it's a second-hand, five-year-old Toyota Corolla, kept for five years. Unemployed people have no car.

Because it's a healthy standard, its only allowance for alcohol is a couple of glasses a week, with no allowance for smoking.

Let's see how you fancy living on these budget standards (I've rounded the figures to the nearest $10 for ease of comprehension). Each of the low-paid categories assumes one person working full-time on the national minimum wage.

A single adult would need to spend $600 a week. A couple with no children would need $830. Add a child of six and that rises to $970. Add a second child, of 10, and it's up to $1170. A sole parent working part-time, with a child, would need to spend $830 a week.

Let's take a couple with two children. Their biggest expense would be rent, $460 a week for a three-bedroom unit in an outer suburb. Then $200 for food, $140 for transport, $140 for household goods and services, $80 for recreation (swimming lessons; bit of sport for the kids), $60 for education, $40 for personal care, $30 for clothing and footwear and $20 a week for out-of-pocket healthcare.

The budget standards for unemployed families are, perforce, a lot tighter.

Whereas the low-paid were assumed to shop at Woolworths and Kmart, unemployed people in the focus groups used to check the realism of the standards said they couldn't afford such stores and went to Aldi and discount stores. They chase specials and collect discount vouchers, make things last longer and waste nothing.

Even with this frugality, an unemployed single adult needs $430 a week. A couple without children needs $660, but that rises by $110 to $770 with one kid, then by a further $170 to $940 with a second kid. An unemployed sole parent with one child needs $680 a week.

It's true that economies of scale mean a couple needs only 1.5 times as much money as a single. But additional kids cost more, partly because older kids cost more, but also because you need to rent a bigger unit.

The good news is that a single adult on the minimum wage earns about $60 a week more than they need to maintain the minimum healthy standard of living, costing $600 a week. A sole parent working part-time, with one child, gets wages and welfare benefits of $45 a week more than their minimum living costs of $830 a week.

After that, however, the news is bad. A low-paid couple with no children earns $40 a week less than the $830 they need. After allowing for family benefits, a low-paid couple (one in full-time work and one doing some part-time work) with one child is almost $10 a week shy of their $970 healthy standard, while a couple with two children is short by $90 of the $1170 a week they need.

One of the great stains on our fair-go nation's conscience is the long-running attempt by governments of both colours to starve the unemployed until they find a (usually non-existent) job.

The study finds that the dole, plus any other welfare benefits for which the jobless are eligible, falls almost $100 a week short of the much tighter minimum healthy living standard for the single jobless.

A childless couple on the dole falls short by almost $110 a week and a couple with two kids is shy about $130 a week.

In our boundless generosity, however, we go easy on an unemployed couple with one kid (short by a mere $60 a week) and a jobless sole parent with one kid, short by a piddling $50 a week.

If only you and I weren't having such a struggle to maintain our own living standards, we could perhaps ask the pollies to be a tad more munificent.

Ross Gittins is the Sydney Morning Herald's economics editor.

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