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While the Morrison government makes gestures towards stronger protections for women, the number of homeless women aged over 55 continues to rise alarmingly – made worse by the pandemic, inaccurate economic modelling and poor superannuation policies. By Kristine Ziwica.

Older women and homelessness

Senator Jenny McAllister.
Credit: AAP / Joel Carrett

Berry McSherry ran her own business, a training company for the long-term unemployed, until changes in government policy led to less funding for the kinds of services she provided. Soon enough, her company went under. She was 55 at the time.

McSherry, who was a single parent and then a widowed mother of two, had struggled financially before. She didn’t have much super – super didn’t even exist at the start of her career – and life events had undermined her ability to save for a rainy day.

Eventually the crisis saw her hand over her home – her only asset – to the bank, to cover her business debts.

“My daughter and I found ourselves one day off sleeping in my car,” McSherry says.

It took about three-and-a-half years for McSherry to get back on her feet, during which time she received Newstart and the Child Care Benefit. But she says it was impossible to cover the cost of renting in a private market on the meagre benefits.

 

“During that time, I applied for 1279 jobs,” she says.

McSherry is scathing about what she describes as the government’s “punitive” approach to welfare, which doesn’t appreciate the challenges faced by women, particularly older women, such as age discrimination.

And she’s not alone.

“There is no shortage of clients coming through our doors who have had that exact experience,” says Fiona York, executive officer of the Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAAG). “Professional women who have worked their whole lives on and off … They get to 59, 60, they are retrenched and can’t find work. And it’s pure ageism. They’re expected to do mutual obligation for their government benefits and it’s just an unrealistic and cruel system for older women.”

The 2011 and 2016 censuses indicated women over the age of 55 are the fastest-growing portion of Australia’s homeless population. Women retire with, on average, half the superannuation balances of men and nearly a quarter of women retire with no super at all.

A 2020 report, “At Risk”, from Social Ventures Australia (SVA) and HAAG, found 405,000 older women were at risk of homelessness in Australia.

Mary Ann Wright was one of them.

After she was made redundant from a low-paid casual job in aged care, Wright reached crisis point.

“I was 55 and it was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t pay my rent,’” she says.

With the cost of a private rental, Wright says there was no way she could survive on Centrelink payments. “After I had paid my rent, and then I paid $71 for gas and electricity, I was $1 in debt.”

“Everything goes out the window,” she says. “You get into this state where you become not only depressed but frozen and frantic … trying to think of a way out of it.”

The Covid-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has disproportionately affected women’s ability to earn and save. And some government policies in response to the pandemic – such as the early access to superannuation scheme, which has seen a larger portion of women completely clear out their super, and the JobMaker program, criticised for incentivising employers to hire younger staff at the expense of older staff – have exacerbated the situation.

“Every measure that we’ve seen so far from the federal government has thrown fuel on the fire of women’s financial security in old age,” says Emma Dawson, executive director of the think tank Per Capita and author of the 2020 report, “The Herstory of Superannuation”.

Research shows that during the initial Covid-19 lockdowns, women lost shifts, and jobs, at higher rates than men. They also shouldered a disproportionate share of the growing mountain of unpaid caring work at home, including home schooling, impacting their ability to work and earn.

In desperation, many turned to the government’s early access to super scheme.

The program was described by Senator Jane Hume, the minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and the Digital Economy – who was handed the additional portfolio of minister for Women’s Economic Security in Scott Morrison’s recent cabinet reshuffle – as a “critical lifeline”.

According to Alison Pennington, a senior economist at The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, between April and December 2020, 1.5 million women – a quarter of the entire female workforce – drew down their super. From women’s already comparatively meagre savings, $14.9 billion was stripped in less than eight months. Some 345,000 women emptied their super accounts entirely.

Many of these women were younger – about to enter their prime reproductive years – meaning they will be less able to replenish their super.

While the number of families with two working parents has increased, the allocation of Australian parents’ time to paid and unpaid work has remained very gendered, with fathers usually in full-time paid employment and mothers often employed part-time or not in employment, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies. In fact, Australia has some of the highest part-time work rates for women among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries.

“Those women [millennials], by my calculations, won’t be as badly off as Gen X or younger boomers, meaning their mothers,” says Dawson from Per Capita. “They will actually be back to where their grandmothers were.”

As Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins warned last year, at the start of the pandemic, it was “laying the groundwork for some pretty serious poverty for women in the future”. The tail of the crisis, so to speak, in terms of women’s economic security, could be very long indeed.

The findings of the 2021 census are not due to be released until next year. However, experts working at front-line services for women experiencing homelessness – including Fiona York from HAAG and Annabelle Daniel, the chief executive of Women’s Community Shelters – say its findings will most certainly reveal a troubling increase in the already upwards trajectory of homeless women over the age of 55.

Dr Debbie Faulkner, a university research fellow who did the modelling for the “At Risk” report, believes her estimates of the number of older women at risk would be much higher if she replicated the modelling exercise now, more than a year into the pandemic.

Anyone who thinks otherwise, she says, is “kidding themselves”.

“It’s a crisis that’s been coming for a decade,” says Faulkner.

Elizabeth Broderick, who helped put the issue of women’s economic security firmly on the map a little over a decade ago at the start of her eight-year tenure as Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, agrees. “This is a crisis we should have seen coming,” she says.

Broderick went on her first “listening tour” in 1997 to hear directly from Australia’s women what they thought should be her priorities. Broderick tells The Saturday Paper she was deeply troubled by the many stories she heard from women who feared poverty and homelessness in old age.

One story, that of a woman named Lerlene who worked in a women’s shelter in Hobart, made an impression.

Lerlene told Broderick it had been “a busy night” at the shelter for young women escaping family violence, during which she had been up several times “calming things down”, including dealing with the ex-boyfriend of one of the young residents who turned up in the middle of the night threatening harm.

“And then she got up at 5am to get all those girls out of bed, dressed and ready for school,” recalls Broderick. “So, it wasn’t just the caring work she did during the day … it was the caring work she did during the night.

“I remember her telling me that because she was lowly paid – that’s the nature of caring work, the fact that it’s highly feminised and the fact that women’s contribution is undervalued historically – meant that when she retired she wouldn’t be able to be a self-funded retiree,” Broderick says. “Lerlene would be entirely dependent on the age pension.”

The stories of women such as Lerlene and others galvanised Broderick to make the issue of women’s economic security one of her priority areas. She was joined by Susan Ryan, a former senator and architect of the Sex Discrimination Act, who served as Australia’s first age discrimination commissioner.

The listening tour, Broderick says, “was the first time I really understood a reframing of this whole area”.

“To ask the question: is poverty to be the reward of a lifetime spent caring?”

In the intervening decade though, there has been no concrete action to address this reality. This is despite dozens of reports, including the Equality Rights Alliance’s “Retiring into Poverty” report, the Security4Women Alliance’s white paper on women’s economic security, which was recently updated to take into account the impacts of Covid-19, and, perhaps most famously, Senator Jenny McAllister’s aptly named “A Husband Is Not a Retirement Plan” report from the 2015 senate inquiry into the issue, which McAllister chaired.

All have clearly stated that the retirement gender gap is a consequence of caring responsibilities, lower rates of pay and gender discrimination in the workplace.

McAllister’s 2015 senate inquiry made 19 recommendations, including several to support a more equal distribution of unpaid care work between parents in heterosexual relationships, such as changes in legislation to combat pregnancy discrimination and discrimination on the basis of caring responsibilities. It also suggested a review of the Paid Parental Leave scheme, which is one of the most unequal in favour of women in the OECD, thereby inhibiting a modern generation of men from being as involved in their kids’ lives as they say they want to be.

The inquiry also recommended that the superannuation guarantee should be paid on the Commonwealth Paid Parental Leave scheme and mechanisms for improving the retirement incomes of carers should be examined.

“The report … received bipartisan support,” McAllister says. “However, since then, the Morrison government has shown little interest in implementing these recommendations, or any other measures to support retirement security for Australian women.”

“Has the superannuation or retirement income system been restructured to recognise the value of unpaid caring work in our society and the economy?” asks Elizabeth Broderick, more than a decade on from her foundational work. “I don’t think I’ve seen that.”

She adds: “Solving this was important in 2009. It’s even more important in 2021.”

Ahead of a decision expected in July to proceed with the previously legislated rise in the super guarantee to 12 per cent by 2025, the government in 2019 commissioned a retirement income review, which reported in November last year.

Commissioned by Treasury, the 10-month probe, chaired Mike Callaghan, who worked as chief of staff to Peter Costello when Costello was treasurer, was asked to provide a “fact base of the current retirement income system in the context of an ageing population” and “improve understanding of the system’s operation and the outcomes it is delivering for Australians”.

Yet despite the neutral sounding terms of reference, the review has received criticism – not least that it was not asked to make any recommendations, but also because it drew the conclusion that the rise would suppress wages. The review also didn’t include an examination of the gender issues in relation to super in its terms of reference, a significant missed opportunity according to Senator McAllister.

“The Morrison government cannot be forgiven for missing another opportunity to address economic insecurity for women in retirement,” she says.

McAllister claims the omission of women from the terms of reference was no accident. More than 100 prominent Australians working in senior roles in business wrote to the treasurer, identifying systemic problems in the superannuation system for women and asking that these be added to the terms of reference.

“The request fell on deaf ears,” McAllister says. “When I raised it at estimates with the former Finance minister, Mathias Cormann, the best he could do was remind me how the retirement income system supports Australians in retirement and ‘that’s obviously men and women’.”

Adding insult to injury, according to Industry Super Australia, the modelling underpinning the review – the basis upon which the review proclaimed the system was “effective, sound and broadly sustainable” – had an “inherent gender bias”. It was based on 40 years of uninterrupted work and continuous contributions, which isn’t the reality for 75 per cent of women.

The modelling thus ignored the impacts of parenthood, career breaks, redundancy, illness, owning a business, unpaid super or any other circumstances that would stop people from receiving 40 years of super contributions.

“Modelling based on wrong assumptions has real-life ramifications,” says Matthew Linden, deputy chief executive of Industry Super Australia. “This is a terrible outcome, as a more realistic working life pattern shows the current super rate is not adequate for most women.”

Per Capita’s Emma Dawson echoes his pessimism. “It’s very disappointing, disturbing and enraging that despite more than a decade of raising this issue and knowing that in the last two censuses women over the age of 55 are the fastest-growing group going into poverty and homelessness, we not only have not seen policies targeted to fix that, but, if anything, we’ve seen policies implemented that make it worse, especially in relation to housing and superannuation,” she says.

The pandemic and the impacts of certain government policies in response to the pandemic have now contributed to an even greater sense of urgency. With calls for “justice” for women prompted by the March 4 Justice rallies expanding to include calls for “economic justice” for women, and with the recent appointment of Jane Hume as a dedicated minister for Women’s Economic Security, there’s an opportunity.

The question for many now is: Is the government going to wait until the release of the next census in 2022 – when the full scale of the crisis and the human impact is clear – before it acts?

When asked about the lack of action, Mary Ann Wright doesn’t mince words. “It does make me angry,” she says. “I mean, you’re not valued … it is just like, well, it’s okay for you to end up in poverty. There’s been how many years of reports? And it still falls on deaf ears?

“There is something fundamentally wrong if it’s been ignored for 12 years or more,” she adds. “Is it they just don’t care? Or is it that old-fashioned thing that women will just get married and the man will just look after them and provide for them. Is there a willingness of governments and parties to really make some sort of pledge to address this?

“I don’t have much hope. Sometimes I think until the people in power think, ‘Oh my god, that’s Mary Ann Wright who used to live next door to us, or it’s my mother-in-law’… Those are the things that are going to help create change.”

Perhaps the message for the prime minister in his regular catch-up with his wife, Jenny – who according to the prime minister helps him understand issues in relation to women – shouldn’t be “What if it was your daughter?” but “What if it was your mother?”

This is the first in a three-part series on women’s economic security, supported by the Melbourne Press Club’s Michael Gordon Fellowship for social justice journalism. Part two discussed the legal fight to close the gender pay gap and part three covered Scott Morrison and the women's movement.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 10, 2021 as "Women of an uncertain age".

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Kristine Ziwica is a Melbourne-based journalist.