Older women are now the fastest growing homeless people in Australia

Well dressed older woman.
Bruce Mars on Pexels

For a country that once prided itself on being the working man’s paradise, Australia has amassed some unenviable accolades in the last 30 years. They include skyrocketing income and wealth inequality due in part due to a persistent labour-market slack problem, issues with casualisation, and a polarised workforce and wages in general, that aren’t rising for many workers.

However, there’s another problem, older women and homelessness. 

“Homelessness should be setting off alarm bells for the policymakers because this is only going to get worse as affordability gets worse”, Felicity Reynolds, CEO of Mercy Foundation.

Women’s homelessness is neither seen or heard, because this rising crisis barely receives any coverage.

Homeless women – the statistics

The number of homeless older women is a rapidly burgeoning population; in fact, it’s one of the largest groups of homeless people. Since 2011, the number of homeless older women over 55 in Australia has soared by 31%.The increase in homelessness among women 65 and over has also risen alarmingly.

However, it’s somewhat difficult to get precise figures on homelessness and older women, given that many older women don’t identify as homeless and they don’t sleep roughly.  According to Felicity Reynolds at the Mercy Foundation (quoted in Pro Bono News) she said: “…they’re staying with friends or family, or their car, and doing a whole lot of things to completely avoid sleeping on the streets because it is unsafe.”

So, if most older women aren’t sleeping rough, and don’t live with friends or family, where are they?

They could be surviving while attempting to deal with violence.

They could be in crisis accommodation.

There’s more than one path to homelessness for older women. They include

  • Carer roles
  • Older women and the impact of divorce or relationship breakdown and / or domestic violence on homelessness.
  • Prejudices and community expectations on women’s equality in workforce participation
  • Sexualising women’s roles in the workplace
  • Superannuation accumulation (less ergo a smaller hardship safety net (carer breaks & also lower pays))
  • Well-educated women made redundant who become homeless

Carer roles

The path of primary carer is set for women early. There is the high cost of childcare for women, which means that women often leave the workforce. The long period of childbirth and childcare results in a financial loss to women reducing they’re savings ability and impoverishing them for future decades.

For many years ABS figures have clearly shown women are far more likely to be primary carers than men 69%-70% therefore are more likely the people caring for elderly loved one’s. Retirement is at 67 that means that women in their late 40s and above are in the prime age demographic. These elderly people are very vulnerable and need the individualised love, support and assistance of a caregiver who knows not just their physical, but personal fulfilment needs.

We are regularly seeing media reports of Senatorial enquiries and Royal Commissions on the long waiting lists and a poor level of care being given by government agencies to our aged and disabled loved ones. Given the inadequate level of government support, it is hardly surprising that family members are motivated into roles as carers and have to leave the workforce to fulfil that vital role.

During WWII, when men went to war, they had the right to reclaim their jobs upon returning home. We are facing a war in aged care yet the best women are offered by Fair Work Act is to request flexible work arrangements for those who have worked longer than 12 months in a job and meet the definition of a carer under the Carer Recognition Act.

Unfortunately, the employer has a wide scope to refuse this request. Consequently, many carers have to leave the workforce. This departure from the workforce means that skills atrophy and lengthy resume gaps , which are viewed negatively when recent experience is considered when attempting to re-enter the workforce.

You’d think this would prompt the Commonwealth to ensure that carers are assisted to retrain while caring and work ready when the try to re-enter. Not so. Despite the cost of a family carer being far lower than Residential Care, the Commonwealth fails to provide carers with sufficient support to allow them to retrain afterwards.

The financial effect of loss of income while caring is amplified by long periods on below poverty line Newstart when trying to re-enter the work-force with diminished skills.

Community expectations and prejudices

Until a few decades ago, many believed that the role of women was that of homemakers.. Some women left the workforce because of religious beliefs and community expectations.

Other women were precluded from the workplace via the Marriage bar. Until 1966, women who worked in the public sector had to relinquish their jobs if they got married. Some women concealed their marital status, while continuing to work in the public sector.

Leaving the workforce was fine for those who enjoyed long, secure happy marriages, but for many other women, it was a poverty trap, and a sure route to homelessness.

Sexualising women’s role in the workplace

Another reason for homeless among older women is sexualisation.

Without a doubt appearance and attractiveness significantly affect employability in many roles.

While this is fine during youth, as women age, many employers make unflattering observations about older women, which can lead to redundancy.

Furthermore, even though there are legal protections in place to protect women, often the desire for female colleagues to comply with certain dress codes can make it very difficult for women to remain employed.

For instance, UK TV producer Miriam O’Reilly successfully mounted a case against being excluded from a BBC TV program based on her appearance.

The sexualisation of women in the workplace has led to a reduction in the roles that older women can expect to fill.  As for the idea that they can go out and get a job, according to Julie Boyd in her post Older, wiser and flat broke says that : “ the majority of women over the age of 55 would attest to with no reservation..the only jobs available to them are check out chicks and shelf stackers.”

Older women and the impact of divorce or relationship breakdown and/ or family violence on homelessness

For many women (young and old) the leading cause of homeless is domestic violence. Although there is a clear gap between the number of homeless older men 64% and homeless older women at 36%, the fact is that many older people are underrepresented in accessing homeless services.

This is because these people are more likely to live in boarding houses. In some cases, they may be able to find accomodation in a homeless shelter. One example of this is Julia, age 54 quoted on the ABC website: “I couldn’t stay at home anymore, so I was put out on a limb, without any support, with no home to go to”

However, research also shows that while older women become homeless for all sorts of reasons, the main one is because they are poor. Research also shows that women fall into homelessness due to inequitable family court settlements.

There needs to be a levelling and as carer roles account for a good proportion of the reduced superannuation a small start could be made by the courts. As part of divorce settlements ruling could be made for non-primary care partners to compensate for superannuation losses in child care years.

Low superannuation accumulation

Superannuation is a safety net that people facing homelessness can early release access. However, Australian women generally retire with a lot less super than men. On average Australian women retire with around 47% less superannuation than their male counterparts. While, there is some evidence according to Roy Morgan that women are starting to close the super gap, the difference between male and female super accumulation remains stark.

At age sixty and over there is still a sizable gap between male and female super accumulation: 86.5K versus 58.1 K.

Kathleen Riach, an associate professor in Management at Monash University says that this is because women don’t have linear career paths. Women often spend time out of the workforce caring for children.  They may be responsible for caring a family member and combining family roles. As superannuation primarily accumulates by the injection from what is termed “employer paid contributions” carer roles find older women with lesser balances to male counterparts.

Or they may start as freelancers/small business operators working hours that suit carer roles. This isn’t as glamorous a picture as is generally painted by blogs/magazines etc. While women are some of the most successful entrepreneurs, there’s no sure path to an overnight success of a business for anyone.  Whilst small business people can claim superannuation you need to earn enough to be able to do that and many don’t.

After caring some may say that women can transition back to the workforce through volunteering.  The reality is this is a solution for those who need it least and an unpaid volunteer gets no superannuation.

These are only some of the potential complications in the lives of women. Some women leave the workforce because of harassment and discrimination and while can get work elsewhere, it’s generally lower-paid employment, reducing the superannuation accumulation and gathering a meagre nest egg that can be used to stave off homelessness.

Well-educated women made redundant and who can’t secure another job

Our society sells us the idea that education is the key to success. While it probably remains true that a better education can improve one’s prospects, as Evan Ortlieb, a course leader and Senior Lecturer at Monash University says: ” Earn a university degree and get a job. This formula has worked with relative success for over 50 years,but increasingly in many fields today the formula is no longer working.”

Yet our politicians continue to push the line that there are jobs out there for people with the right education and skills.

The reality is that while education, training, enterprise and ingenuity are great, they are no substitute for opportunities that respect the availability of applicants education and skills. Why? With the right education and skills some will secure employment, others will be stuck in insecure employment and others are left empty handed. In other words, in an employment landscape with few opportunities, a great skill set and education doesn’t mean employment.

You only need to look at the statistics to get a better picture of what is going on in the labour-market. For every available job, there are on average 46 graduates competing for each role. According to Raife Watson, CEO of Adzuna the gap between graduates and jobs is 22 to 1. There’s also more competition for graduate roles in regional areas.

While much of the data focuses on younger graduates, older graduates (like non-graduates) are finding the labour-market challenging. Watson recommends: ““There’s a bias in hiring managers, often they are of a certain age too, and there’s just a … hidden bias (of) ‘I’m not hiring that old guy or old woman’.

And it’s no less daunting for many older workers, argues Julie Boyd, a writer, author and coach, says even for those with impressive credentials. In fact, the struggles older well-educated women have to secure work may surprise some. Take for example Mary a highly-qualified woman. “Mary’ has a PhD in medical research, but became unemployable at 53 when she wanted to go part-time to care for her son who has schizophrenia.”

Another case study cited by Boyd is Fay. “ Fay’s (teacher of the deaf with no superannuation) husband, a respected vet, committed suicide when she was 57 and he was 60. He had gambled all their family assets away, unbeknown to her.”

Unfortunately, older women have lower work participation rates than younger women in just about every occupational grouping, including female-friendly occupations like teaching.

This phenomenon among qualified and experienced older women is by no means confined to Australia. It has been investigated in the US by economist John Neumark at the University of California Irvine.  He sent out a series of fictional resumes for men and women across a range of ages. On each he indicated the age of the applicant.  His study found that there was marked decrease in call backs for older women.

Associate Professor Joanna Lahey, at Texas A&M University found similar results from her research. In addition, her study found that age discrimination begins surprisingly young – at age 35.

Furthermore, employers – contrary to widespread societal myth don’t select on merit (at least not exclusively!) In fact, they often select based on unfair gender comparisons. 

Moreover, all employers have an agenda when hiring candidates, according to Heidi Grant-Havolson in Why no one understands you and what to do about it. For some younger hiring managers this means that they simply won’t hire an older person, who, if hired, might boss them around.

Others bosses may have an agenda not to hire anyone nearing retirement age.

Solutions

There are a few different solutions that governments can implement to address the growing problem of homeless older women.

Housing

Currently, housing for the homeless focused on crisis accommodation, but realistically there need to be more new housing stock built for the homeless.

State governments could issue infrastructure bonds and use the proceeds to fund public or community housing. More importantly, the federal government must assume responsibility for public housing and increase the funding under the National Housing Agreement.

Employment

A job guarantee scheme would guarantee job seekers real work. It would pay at the minimum wage and provide leave benefits. A job guarantee is also not a punitive, populist workfare scheme.

Social security and super

We must guarantee a higher level of social security payments. Payments would be determined by the UNSW Minimum Healthy living index. This index looks at what households require to survive comfortably. Hence, payments – for all Guaranteed Basic Income recipients – would need to be significantly higher than current payments.

Another solution for women who’ve looked after a loved one is for the government to recognise that carers often as a form of service provider for the Commonwealth; therefore, the government should be providing super for the duration of their time out of the workforce.


” These ‘carers credits’ could be funded from a number of different pools of money, including by winding back superannuation tax concessions. ” Emily Millane, Research fellow at Per Capita

Long-term the solution to address this inequitable situation for women is to scrap super and restrict it’s availability to those in high-earning occupations.  It’s a flawed product that can’t be structurally-fixed to provide women with a broken employment record with a decent retirement income.

Superannuation

One of the fundamental guiding principles of our society and superannuation is buyer beware (caveat emptor). It seems a perfectly reasonable idea – entrust individuals with responsibility for making their own choices and creating their future, right? We all want to make the most of life and get what we want, right?

Unfortunately, choices aren’t like products that can be selected from supermarket shelves. Many factors affect choices like availability, the literacy of the consumer, institutionalised barriers and time -add into that mix disengagement and apathy. And you have many reasons why many young women who commence their careers, don’t engage with or learn about super.

Often they don’t know whether super products are suitable for them and don’t have the financial literacy to assess whether they should try and secure a better deal.

This doesn’t seem like a problem to bright-eyed, intelligent and ambitious young woman. Unfortunately they don’t know whether their working career may be dogged by lack of secure employment, an irregular income stream (both entrenched features of neo-liberal economics), or time spent child rearing and/ caring.

The years sail by in a blink of an eye, and suddenly they’re on the threshold of middle-age or retirement with a seriously depleted super balance and facing the immediate threat of homelessness.

Conclusion

In spite of public education campaigns run by groups such as Homelessness Australia, the picture of the homeless person in minds of Australian’s is some homeless older gent sleeping rough. Yet, it’s affecting those who you would least expect that it would affect like mature women. Many of these people have little or no contact with social security, but for one reason or another, have ended up in need of housing.

So next time you go shopping and you see mature women chatting and enjoying a coffee, they may be well attired, respectable middle-class women, or they may be relishing a once-a-month treat. After all, nobody really knows the scale of the homelessness problem among older women.

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