Rising cost of living drives Canberrans below the poverty line in what many are calling Australia’s wealthiest city

Nearly one in 10 Canberans live below the poverty line, according to the ACT’s Social Services Council’s latest report, challenging perceptions of a ‘well off’ and ‘wealthy’ nation’s capital .

One example is Caroline, who returned to Canberra last year to be closer to her daughter.

Since coming to ACT, Caroline has struggled to find a job and still 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 returned to Canberra to be closer to her daughter, she struggled to find a job or secure accommodation.(ABC News: Donald Sheil)

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

“That’s almost all of JobSeeker’s weekly allowance.”

Social service providers ‘see a whole new clientele’

A man in a blue poop stands in a food aisle.
St John’s Care operations director Robbie Speldewinde said the charity was seeing people who had never needed the service before.(ABC News: Donald Sheil)

Caroline is one of many Canberrans residents who have turned to St John’s Care – a charity which provides free essentials to those struggling to make ends meet – for help.

Operations manager Robbie Speldewinde said he has seen a huge increase in demand.

“There are a few factors that contribute to this,” he said.

“The increase in the cost of food is significant… but also the increase in the cost of gas. Going to fill up your car right now has lost a lot of people.”

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

“It’s hard to see.”

Four key factors affect most household budgets: gasoline, food, housing and electricity.

In Canberra, here is what has 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 organization that provides free financial advice.

She said a lot of consultants have been constantly booked lately.

“People are showing pretty extreme levels of financial hardship,” she said.

“A lot of people are calling because they can’t afford basic necessities like gas, food and insurance.”

Ms Shroot said many of her conversations lately have been heartbreaking.

“A lot of people are calling and they don’t even have next week’s rent – they don’t have enough food for their families this week,” she said.

Ms Shroot said more and more Canberrans were turning to buy now, pay for services later in order to save money in the short term, but she said it only added to their debt longer term.

“Electrical companies have very good, uninteresting hardship programs and we recommend people call their suppliers and talk to them first,” 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 over a decade.

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

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

While the cost of electricity, childcare and rent have risen for many Australians, price increases in Canberra have far exceeded national average increases.

And while the cost of international travel fell elsewhere in Australia, it rose in Canberra by 2.4%.

Some households have been hit harder than others.

Older pensioners and veterans are hurting the most – the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggests goods and services that pensioners typically buy have risen in price faster than things that other households are buying.

“Ridiculous” real estate market

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

Property prices – whether buying or renting – have also soared in Canberra during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Peta Stamel managed to buy her own home, but says she chose to live in shared homes for about 15 years to be able to afford it.

“Now that I’m in my thirties, I thought it would be nice not to have to climb over things to get into my own house.”

But while Ms Stamell says she is grateful to have entered the housing market before prices rose even more, she says she still had to make compromises.

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

She knows she will have to upgrade eventually.

A woman holds her baby, who wears a colorful bib.
Peta Staell and her five-month-old son at their north Canberra home.(ABC News: Greg Nelson)

“Although the house we bought has gone up in value, it really doesn’t mean anything unless you have spare properties on hand and I don’t,” she said.

“So I’m going to upgrade to a much more expensive property and I’m not looking forward to it.”

Ms. Stamel believes that affordable housing is a basic human right and wants reform that helps bring prices down.

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