What's being poor in England and Australia like?

I’m pretty clued in to how poverty manifests itself in the US, but I am curious about how being poor works in England and Australia.

Is the lifestyle of the truly poor in Australia and England similar to that in the United States, or does the state establish a basic level of reasonable quality subsistence? Is assistance to the physically able poor time limited (as in the US), or is it provided regardless of whether you work or not?

I don’t know what the situation is in England, but here in Australia we have a social security system that (at least theoretically) provides a guaranteed income for those who by virtue of age, disability, single-parenthood or unemployment are not able to engage fully in the employment market.

There are certain ‘hurdles’ that must be overcome such as the Work Test for those on unemployment benefits. This involves the jobseeker having to prove he/she has been actively looking for work. If after 12 months (I think) they are still unemployed, they will be compelled to join a Work for the Dole scheme, where public services are performed in exchange for their Dole payment (plus a little bit more).

The sole parent pension cuts out when your youngest child hits 16. There are also income and assets tests (so that, for example, if you own properties worth over a certain value, you might be denied assistance).

For all pensions and benefits there is a sliding scale, so that any income reduces your payment by something like 40c in the $1.00. With the sole parent benefits, your payment does not cut out completely unless you are earning over $1.400 per fortnight (with one child).

So, basically, we do provide safety nets so that NOBODY should have nil income.

We also have a universal health-care system so that anybody who needs medical attention can access it for ‘free’. Whilst fewer GP’s are ‘bulk-billing’ nowadays, all public hospitals are available to anybody in need.

Different states provide different systems of housing assistance, but for those on limited incomes (and after a waiting period of up to 10 or 12 YEARS) they might be eligible for public housing whereby their rent is subsidised according to their income.

For those of us who aren’t US residents, could you possibley spell out what the system is for the poor in America?
Many people in the mediea, at least to us brits, present it as a place where the poor get a really rough ride- especailly when it comes to health care.
Can somebody REALLY not be given a life-saving operation because they can’t afford adequate health insurance, for example?

Apart from the fact that sleeping rough on the streets of Sydney is probably not quite as cold as doing it in NYC, there’s not much difference for many folk, I’d wager.

What kambuckta said about our Social Security system is correct in theory, but many people (alcoholics, the mentally ill, etc) tend to fall through the cracks. I don’t think Australia’s welfare safety net is too bad by international standards, but it sure as hell still ain’t fun to live on.

Thanks for the useful information on Australia! Any English dopers care to shine a light on the English poor?

I take it you are not interested in the Welsh , Scottish or Irish poor then :slight_smile:

There are differing levels of circunstance to being poor in the UK.

You can have supportive family, or it could be that your needs are reduced due to you possesing most of the things you need to live with a little dignity.

We have unemployment suppport, basically you get free money for a time from differant parts of the same agency, but those differing parts have differant qualification rules for benefit payment.
Those rules can be opaque, the agency concerned may not inform you of all you may be entitled to, all of them have a ‘habit of losing your parperwork’ despite all your case notes being held on computer records.
Add to this that the staff treat you as if you were something stuck to their shoes, that everyone, absolutely evryone is a lazy good for nothing sponger(ab assunption that seems to be made without any regard to actual circumstances such as redundancy), and on top of this, these ‘people’ can reduce your benefit entitlement on the merest self informed opinion(you can take their decisions to tribunals for review, and you nearly always win)
and it becomes plain that benefit agency staff seem to feel it is their duty to make life for benefit seejers as hard as possible for anyone foolhardy enough to be unlucky in their circumstances.

Despite not having had to claim state benefits for many years, the memory still rankles, and added to that are the experiences of several friends who have been similarly treated, and worse, and more recently.

Being completely dependant upon state benefits, and hence on the agency staff is no joke.

I know there are spongers, but they always seem to know all the loopholes, but genuine folk who really do not want to be dependant upon the state are easy targets for these staff, and are treated with contempt.

More later, I have been down there, and I will need to just back off a little or this will turn into a pit worthy rant.

Well sure, if it’s markedly different than being “English” poor.

Hanza, you ask a large and complicated question, but I’ll try to fill in some information about poverty in the US so that you and others can follow this thread.

First, welfare, unemployment and public health programs are primarily run by each of the 50 states, not the US federal government. So there are 50 different sets of circumstances. The exception is programs for senior citizens, Social Security and Medicare, which are federal programs. The situation for the poor can vary quite a bit between states, with some more generous than others.

Second, in the US we have recently (past 10 years or so) undergone a period of welfare reform which has instituted a lot more time limits and restrictions on getting aid.

Third, a little about health care. For most people, health insurance is tied to employment. Adults get insurance through their job, usually not for free. Their employer may offer them the ability to cover additional family members, usually at additional cost. This cost could be 100-$200/month or more to cover a family. The terms of the insurance vary widely from company to company. If you and your spouse are not employed, you may be able to buy insurance as an individual, but it is VERY expensive. More like $500-700/ month or more for a family, and those policies tend to exclude a lot of things, such as pregnancy, and have high deductibles.* If you don’t have insurance and need an operation, for example, most likely you will be able to get the operation, but will have to pay off thousands of dollars in bills, possibly over the rest of your life.

From what I undestand hospitals will not (or should not) deny emergency treatment to anyone. And there are charities that may help in non-emergency but still life-threatening or other serious situations. But in general if you are not insured, you should expect to pay full price or go into debt for any medical care, and the costs can be ruinously expensive.

  • Detail - if you leave a job or lose your employer’s insurance coverage through certain other situations, you usually have the right to pay extra to continue that coverage for a certain period of time, usually 18 months. But this is quite expensive, especially if you are now unemployed.

More about the US: The welfare reform act that Harriet referred to was passed in 1995. The big outline of it is that it imposed a five year time limit for any individual to be on welfare, after which they were cut off. They could return after one year off the welfare rolls. There was much talk at the time about ‘welfare to work’ programs funded entirely of partially by the government, designed to give people the skills and training necessary to find a job, though it’s unclear how well these work.

Health care options for the poor vary from state to state. In the two states that I know about, California and Kentucky, there are government-funded programs that provide insurance for children at very low cost. The parents only pay about twenty dollars a year. I don’t know how good the insurance is. There is no such option for adults, though.

Also, the bankruptcy laws were changed in 1998 in ways that largely favored creditors and hurt debtors. For individuals who have to take on huge debts in order to pay for medical care, climbing out of debt can be almost impossible.

Casdave, the time I was signing on all the staff were very friendly and helpful, but I live in a very small town, so that might be the reason we have had different experiences with them.

I have always found ‘Centrelink’ (and it’s predecessor the Dept of Social Security) staff here in Australia to be helpful and always courteous, even when faced with an irate and gibbering customer. The staff are the front-line defence for govt. welfare policies that are not always fair and often punitive, and they cop a lot of flak from clients who feel that they have not been given their entitlements.

Many of the staff I have encountered are just as frustrated as the clients, and will go out of their way to help find a loophole if there is one available. I have nothing but respect for them, doing in my opinion what must be one of the shittiest jobs around.

But that’s just my experience…luckily it has been mostly positive.

Being poor varies in the United States.

If you have children, you are generally able to get some sort of public assistance- although they have recently places time limits and more strict terms on who can recieve it. This sort of welfare includes both food vouchers and cash assistance. It allows a sparse but livable standard of life if you have a decent situation.

When I was growing up on welfare, we ate cheap meat (hamburger, chicken drumsticks, cheap cuts of beef), potatoes and a can of vegetables for most meals. By the end of the month we might have to resort to ramen or peanut butter and jelly. Canned fruit was out of our reach as an everyday thing. A popular trick was to mix half a gallon of regular milk with half a gallon of powered milk so it wouldn’t taste so bad. One could afford thrift store clothes, and maybe a new pair of decent sneakers a year. Generally children can get free low-quality lunches at school. Pregnant and nurseing mother can recieve additional vouchers for products like milk and cheese, but these must be spent in very restricted ways.

We had had a good situation. If we couldn’t afford dinner, generally Grandma would have us over. My mom was dealing with one kid. Others had it worse. It’s pretty common for a poor family to have other people’s kids in it (for example, a niece who’s mom is a drug addict, or your daughter’s friend who got kicked out of her house), or have some debt. They may also lack a social support system to fall back on in hard times. In these situations they generally get food baskets, donated toys for Christmas and may live in somebody’s garage or couch. It’s not all that unsual for someone to raise a family out of a car.

There is a limited amount of substidized housing. People living in these houses pay really cheap rents- maybe one third to one half market rate. There are usually long waiting lists for these homes (some take years, even decades), and they are often in bad areas. Many are only for families with children. There are other programs that help poor people to buy houses. Each area has it’s own set of programs and rules, and it can be hard to get good information on them. Some people still end up in shelters.

If you work, even a minimum wage job that cannot truely support you, you are likely eligable for no welfare at all. The “working poor”- which includes most people in service industries who are making minimum wage or just above- really have it the worst in America. Many of these people work two or three jobs. It can be hard to support yourself like this, much less a family.

Medical care for the poor also varies. If you have kids, they are usually (but not always) eligable for some kind of program. I remember going to clinics and emergency rooms as a child. Adults usually cannot get government substidized health care. You will not be turned away in an emergency, but you also cannot get preventative or non-emergency care without paying upfront. You can get help if you’ve broken an arm, but not if you have unexplained stomach pain. Even in emergencies, you will be billed- a couple stitches runs a thousand dollars, hospital stays can run into tens of thousands. They are lax in collecting on these bills, but you will have to pay them eventually or go bankrupt.

There are similar programs for the disabled, which I do not know the details of. Lots of mentally impaired people fall through the cracks. And things like drug rehabilitation are hard to get into.

If you are able bodied and don’t have kids you are pretty much out of luck. If you can’t afford a home, you have to find a shelter that will find you or sleep on the streets or in a car. If you do not have food, you have to find a soup kitchen or eat from the garbage. Plenty of good people who don’t have families or friends end up in this situation temporarily. But most of the people who are in this situation for the long term are mentally ill.

Schools are free, but they are funded by local property taxes. A school in a poor area is likely to be pretty low in quality, whereas schools in good areas can be as good as expensive private schools. Moving in to an area with good schools is a major concern for parents in the United States. In California (it varies) there are cheap two-year colleges. There is decent financial aid for public four-year colleges- I only had to pay a couple thousand dollars out of pocket for a very good education. But just about everyone comes out of college tens of thousands of dollars in debt. College tuitions without aid are astronomical.

I’m not well aquainted with being elderly and poor.

So thats a little bit on being poor in America.

Yeah getting caught up in the ‘working poor’ (making $10-18k or so a year) category is even worse than being unemployed sometimes. I know people who had to turn down extra jobs because if they had taken them they would lose their medicaid insurance.

Being poor in America sucks. You aren’t guaranteed medical care beyond very basic treatment. Housing is not so much bad as it is unsafe. Most neighborhoods are economically homogenous so if you live in a cheap house you often live in a bad neighborhood. Bad neighborhood often lack public parks and good places to shop for necesseties.

As a previous poster has pointed out this means bad schools because property taxes fund the education system on a local level. For more info on that particular problem, read Jonathan Kozol’s **Savage Inequalities **.

As for the lack of insurance issue it varies. A friend of mine had a son with leukemia and no medical insurance. She had to go through a number of hoops to get him treatment. His treatment was delayed while she arranged funding.

My mother has meds for her diabetes that aren’t entirely covered under her insurance. She has to pay for them out of pocket so she cuts down on usage.

I was without insurance as a young adult and sprained my ankle. I was given treatment immediately but I had to pay for it out of pocket.

So if you’re too poor to buy insurance and you get sick, you land yourself in debt for the rest of your life… ensuring that you remain too poor to buy insurance…

Is there no-one in America who thinks this system needs a bit of an overhaul?

Kam I’ve had mixed experiences with Centrelink but since changing the one I deal with, things have been much better. It was lost paperwork, wrong decisions and the like which I put down to the staff being totally and utterly overwhelmed at that particular branch.

We most definitely fall into the working poor category and from what I hear from friends in the US it’s a lot easier here than there. Benefits are not time limited – I do have to go to a meeting some time in the near future to discuss my longterm plans now my younger kid is 6 but given that both my kids have disabilities, it won’t be a BFD. There is apparently assistance available to help me become more employable which is a good thing.

We do OK. We’ve got money for housing, food, entertainment and the like. The disability allowance I get for my kids covers the cost of private health care. While I can access the hospital system, I’m not keen on the lack of choice or the 6 month waiting lists.

Sorry, forgot to reply to the OP there (too shocked at your medical insurance stories)

I think being poor is rubbish wherever you are, but “poverty” can be a shifting concept, relative to general income levels.

In the UK I think it would be safe to say “absolute poverty” (starvation, dying from cold or disease on the street) is gone. The poorest and most deprived people are probably the single or childless unemployed with no assets, living in areas of high unemployment. These people would only qualify for the lowest level of benefits (welfare). They would get enough to eat, but paying bills would be difficult and extras - a car, treats, holidays - out of the question.

Those who can work, even if part time, are (since Labour came to power) in a better position as low wages are now topped up with benefits and allowances. The idea was to increase the gap between low-wage jobs and unemployment benefit to encourage more people off welfare. Families with children are slightly better off in terms of welfare than a few years ago.

All medical treatment is free at the point of use (to use their jargon), meaning it is paid for by taxation with highest paid paying most. Private medicine, like private education, is an option available to the affluent.

Property is a big social divide here - those who can afford a mortgage make thousands of pounds as property prices have spiralled very fast. Public housing is considered a very poor alternative.

Quite a few people. The last attempt to reform it was during Clinton’s first term, I believe. The problem is, the medical/insurance lobby here is extremely rich and very powerful, so lawmakers aren’t inclined to do anything about it. And anytime an attempt is made to bring up “socialized” medicine, the dire prospect of communism is brought up endlessly. We’ve also only heard horror stories about how England/Australia do it, like how you might have to wait 4 months to see a doctor. And there’s always the “You don’t want some government bureaucrat telling you when you can go to the doctor, do you?!”

You guys just don’t understand the fear and loathing our government inspires over here.

I’m glad to hear it! I’m frankly appalled by some of the medical-insurance stories I hear on this site, but I’m hesitant to go on about it because it’s an American site and it can be annoying to hear a foreigner criticising your country (or sounding smug about their own).

You mention that Americans only hear horror stories about the British medical system. This may be partly our own fault. The trouble is that if you’ve had something in place since 1948 as we have, then you get complacent. We moan about waiting lists, about variable conditions in hospitals, shortage of nurses and docs, medical mistakes etc. All these things happen, but, as far as I can see, and certainly in my experience, they are not the rule.

Long waiting lists are probably the worst problem, but emergencies and life-threatening disease are dealt with promptly. And once you get your appointment, the extent and quality of the treatment is regardless of your income. It’s the old story - the thousands of good doctors and successful treatments don’t make the news.

Your politicians might be persuaded by some of the surveys here which show that British voters will object to tax increases for just about everything - except the health service.

I’m probably painting too rosy a picture, and there are controversial government part-privatisation plans afoot, but I wish some ordinary US voters could come over here and have a good look at the health service. It’s not perfect, but it’s there and it works. And it’s not communism!