Rising cost of living dragging Canberrans below poverty line in what many call Australia’s most affluent city

According to the ACT Council of Social Service’s latest report, nearly one in 10 Canberrans are living below the poverty line, challenging the perception of a “well-off” and “rich” national capital.

Caroline, who moved back to Canberra last year to be closer to her daughter, is one example.

Since moving to the ACT, Caroline has struggled to find a job and to consistently have a roof over her head.

She has since found emergency accommodation, but before that she was forced to live in her car for months.

When Caroline moved back to Canberra to be closer to her daughter she struggled to find a job or secure housing.(ABC News: Donal Sheil)

“I found it quite difficult because Canberra is very cold and I got a lung infection just before I found this house,” she said.

“That’s almost the whole weekly allowance of JobSeeker.”

Social service providers ‘seeing a whole new clientele’

A man in a blue shit stands in an aisle of food.
St John’s Care operations manager Robbie Speldewinde says the charity is seeing people who have never needed the service before.(ABC News: Donal Sheil)

Caroline is one of many Canberrans who has turned to St John’s Care – a charity that provides free essentials to those struggling to make ends meet – for assistance.

Operations manager Robbie Speldewinde said he had seen a huge rise in demand.

“There are a couple of factors contributing to that,” he said.

“The increased cost of food is a big one … but also the increased cost of petrol. Going to fill up your car at the moment has put a lot of people out of pocket.”

Mr Speldewinde said the charity was also seeing “a whole new clientele”.

“It is hard to see.”

There are four key factors affecting most household budgets: petrol, food, housing, and electricity.

In Canberra, this is what happened to prices in just one year for these common goods and services:

‘Extreme levels of financial hardship’

Financial consultant Deb Shroot works for Care, an organisation that provides free financial advice.

She said a lot of the consultants had been constantly booked out recently.

“People are presenting with quite extreme levels of financial hardship,” she said.

“A lot of people are calling because they cannot afford essentials such as petrol, food items and insurance.”

Ms Shroot said a lot of her conversations lately had been heart-breaking.

“A lot of people are calling and they do not even have next week’s rent payment – they do not have enough food for their family for this week,” she said.

Ms Shroot said more Canberrans were turning to buy now, pay later services as a way of saving money in the short term, but she said it only added to their debt in the longer term.

“Electricity companies have very good interest-free hardship programs and we recommend people call their providers and speak to them in the first instance,” she said.

She also recommended people call free services like Care for advice.

How does Canberra compare to the rest of the country?

The cost of living had been falling for most Australians for more than a decade.

But those good times are over, and it has been a tough year across the country.

However, if it feels like Canberra is more expensive than elsewhere in some ways, it’s because it is.

While the cost of electricity, child care and rent increased for many Australians, the price rises in Canberra far exceeded national average increases.

And while the cost of international travel fell elsewhere in Australia, it increased in Canberra by 2.4 per cent.

Some households have been hit harder than others.

Age and veterans pensioners are suffering the most — the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggests that the goods and services that pensioners typically buy have been going up in price faster than the things that other households buy.

‘Ridiculous’ housing market

A woman looking out the window.
Peta Stamell  believes that affordable housing is a basic human right and wants reform that helps lower prices.(ABC News: Greg Nelson)

The price of property – whether to buy or rent – has also skyrocketed in Canberra during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Peta Stamell managed to buy her own place, but says she chose to live in share houses for about 15 years so she could afford it.

“Now that I am in my 30s I thought it would be nice to not have to climb on things to get into my own house.”

But while Ms Stamell says she feels grateful she got into the housing market before prices rose even further, she says she still had to make compromises.

She and her sister pooled their money to buy a two-bedroom home, where they both live along with Ms Stamell’s five-month-old son.

She knows she will have to upgrade eventually.

A woman holds up her baby son, who is wearing a colourful bib.
Peta Stamell and her five-month-old son in their home in Canberra’s north.(ABC News: Greg Nelson)

“Although the house we bought has increased in value it does not really mean anything unless you have got spare properties on hand and I do not,” she said.

“So I will be upgrading to a substantially more expensive property and I am not looking forward to doing that.”

Ms Stamell believes that affordable housing is a basic human right and wants reform that helps lower prices.

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