COVID driving more older Australians into poverty

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Many of us who endured lockdowns in Australia are familiar with the surge in energy bills at home. But for older Australians who depend on the Age Pension for income, lockdowns drove many deeper into ‘energy poverty’. Some faced up to 50 per cent higher bills than in 2019, as a result of COVID.

Energy poverty involves low-income households restricting their energy consumption by avoiding certain activities like showering, spending high proportions of their income on energy and, sometimes, being unable to pay bills.

A 2015 report from the Brotherhood of St Laurence found an estimated 28 per cent of Australian households experience energy poverty on at least one measure. A third of this was made up of older households (headed by someone aged 65 or older) on the measure of income versus energy spending.

For our ongoing qualitative research, we interviewed 22 older (65 plus) low-income Australians in NSW and Victoria and analysed their bills, before and during COVID lockdowns. They present a heartbreaking picture of energy poverty and the loneliness that comes with it. It remains a neglected consequence of the pandemic.

The consequences of energy poverty

Prior to COVID, energy costs were a major concern for older Australians with many having to use a substantial proportion of their income to remain connected.

During COVID, many older Australians spent almost all their time at home. Our research, which is not yet published, found lockdowns caused their energy consumption and bills to swell 15-50 per cent higher than in 2019, making a bad situation even tougher for already vulnerable community members.

Lockdowns led to 15—50 per cent higher bills than in 2019 for older people on the Age Pension in Australia.

Energy poverty has serious consequences for quality of life. To compensate for potentially higher bills, people changed their behaviour and cut consumption of other essential, and non-essential items.

For example, COVID severely curtailed their social activities through the closure of community centres, which intensified their feelings of loneliness and social exclusion.

Iris, aged 78, said prior to COVID she kept her bills low by spending time at her community centre.

I try to go out so that I don’t need to use energy […] If I don’t stay [at home], and then I don’t use it. If I become too hot, I go to common room [with] the air conditioner.

In response to COVID, the community centre closed. Iris has health issues and is reluctant to go out. Her energy bill increased by $50 to $60 per quarter. She told us:

Before COVID, I used to be extremely social. I’d be outside my home every day. Now I think the increase in my energy costs are being compensated by not going out any more and not socialising, as I’m still afraid of exposing myself to the virus.

I’m old you know. I can’t [afford to] get sick. But even though I’m saving some money by not socialising, I can’t save money for potential emergencies as before. With the higher electricity bills and the new medical expenses, my capacity to save [has] reduced a lot.

People may also reduce their heater use in winter, and fan or air-conditioning use in summer. This is major problem during extreme weather events such as heatwaves or storms, which can have serious health consequences for older people at home. In turn, public health infrastructure is tested as more people need to see their GP or require emergency treatment.

Another overlooked problem is the connection between energy poverty and food insecurity. With a limited Age Pension income, vulnerable households may have to choose between heating or eating healthily.

We identified three reasons why. First, they try to buy the cheapest, usually unhealthy, food. Second, they purchase food that is easily prepared, which is usually more processed, to avoid using electricity or gas in cooking. And third is the need to get food from charities and food banks which, in many cases, is food that’s unwanted by others.

‘Since COVID has come in, everything has gone up, up, up’

Many of those we interviewed between February and December 2020 confirmed their bills had increased during COVID lockdowns. This included Vania, 67, who had difficulty linking her higher bills to increased consumption.

This issue of energy literacy and ability to engage with the energy market recurred in the interviews. She told us:

I think since COVID has come in, everything has gone up, up, up. I don’t understand what the bill [says]. Why are they [the energy bills], you know, going up so high? Doesn’t make sense to me.

Anthony, 69, changed his lifestyle dramatically in response to COVID.

I went from eating out, every hot meal was eating out. And then from March onwards, every hot meal was eating in […] I was out of the house one hour a week in March, April, May and June. I was home 167 hours a week.

His energy consumption increased significantly, despite trying to minimise usage. For instance, to compensate for a 15-50 per cent increase in energy usage on heating, cooling and cooking, Anthony reduced hot water consumption by around 12 per cent, by showering less.

His remarkably accurate records in the graphs below show consumption for different uses (he had separate meters) before and during COVID in summer, autumn and winter.

A good quality of life for pensioners

Energy poverty is a complex, multifaceted problem with no single, easy solution.

We need to advocate for increased government pensions that ensure a good quality of life for pensioners, one that guarantees pensioners aren’t living below the poverty line after housing and energy costs are deducted.

Government schemes to retrofit existing houses with better energy efficiency are also urgently needed. This could be through installing solar panels or retrofitting secondary glazing for insulation.

There are also many ways to reduce energy costs for older people who may be spending unnecessary amounts.

First, reducing confusing paperwork so older low-income households can access rebates on domestic appliance replacements. The range of appliances should include portable heaters and coolers.

Second, a low and fair single rate for low-income households across all energy retailers should be established, to ensure they’re on the best possible energy scheme. It should not depend on an individual’s energy literacy.

And finally, energy literacy training online and offline among older low-income households through community centre events and organisations, such as Council on the Ageing (COTA) NSW would be beneficial.

Sara Wilkinson, Professor, School of the Built Environment, University of Technology Sydney; Alan Morris, Professor, Institute of Public Policy and Governance, University of Technology Sydney, and Caroline Porto Valente, PhD Candidate – School of Built Environment, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Have your energy costs gone up since the pandemic hit. Do you support a single rate for low-income households? Rebates for domestic appliance replacements? Would you take advantage of energy literacy training?

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Written by The Conversation


Total Comments: 9
  1. 1

    Bring on the renewables. Solar and wind, guaranteed to increase power costs, but who cares ?

    • 0

      Great idea but voters keep returning climate change denying federal government who are in bed with the fossil fuel industry and are not interested in lowering power bills for anyone let alone older folk. A gas lead recovery. Scheeee. When will voters wake up?

  2. 0

    As an older retired person, I have to say that this argument has a serious flaw. Our electricity bills have not varied much from 2019 figures because we don’t live a lifestyle that involves socialising to any great extent. 69 year old Anthony went from eating out, every hot meal was eating out. And then from March onwards, every hot meal was eating in. Of course his electricity bill increased but it’s obvious that his food bill dropped a lot more than the increase in his electricity.

  3. 0

    I am 83 year old single male rely on the Age Pension. I have a split system air con and overhead fans. I keep warm in winter and cool in summer. My comfort is more important than the energy cost. I shop once a week at Coles, only need food and petrol as I don’t need anything else. I have 2 cats and a garden and I read a lot. I live in a seniors Home Unit Payed for the right to occupy, monthly fee and I don’t pay for rates or water. All my living expenses are direct debit and I usually have spare cash at the end of each month. Pensioners have never had it so good, I don’t smoke, drink or gamble. The Covid-19 hasn’t made any difference to me really I live in a small country town and life here continues as if there is no virus. We have a very good Medical centre and Chemist side by side. I enjoyed all my overseas travel sometime ago so doesn’t matter much to me anymore. The Barossa and Claire valley is only 30 minutes away for a days trip. I am quite happy with my lifestyle and follow Politics with interest.

    • 3

      You would have to be, in that case, one of the very blessed ones in millions. The TRUE state of pensioners today, struggling to even get decent food trying to get at least some nutrition from it, is ignored by just about everyone, including the PM. Their lot in so-called ‘nursing homes’ is horrific, most sacrifice money for needed food & even medicine just to be able to afford their escalating, rocketing rents each fortnight. Australia was NEVER like this when I was growing up and I watched my much-loved mother suffer, worry and struggle with the PITTANCE pensioners are given. No wonder their health deteriorates, no wonder they live in fear! These are their years where they need the most love, care and compassion of all and yet they’re being left to be abused by carers, given slop to eat in ‘care’ facilities, and left to die, even in this Pandemic. “Pensioners never had it so good”? I say you’re living in a dream world. And it won’t stay that way much longer, for sure.

  4. 0

    Think of all the money saved by not travelling overseas or even within Australia. I find that I have more money available since covid19 hit, even though the energy bill has gone up a little. I don’t buy the title of this article, it’s misleading.

    • 0

      You can’t judge a nationwide situation from your own secluded living one! I suggest you get out and see how the elderly poor are being forced to live. They can’t even afford to consider ‘travelling’ anywhere at all – and are battling to pay energy bills. THAT’s the reality, and the title of the article is not ‘misleading’. You just don’t know enough about what’s really going on!

  5. 0

    Moongold I don’t know about being blessed. I budget very well. As an ex-Masterchef I am able to buy and cook very well . Single pensioners get $ 944-30 per fortnight if not renting that’s an awfull lot of money to play around with. I am 83 fit and well so I hope to never see the inside of a nursing home

    • 1

      I hope so too. However, the reality is that there are millions of pensioners who have no choice but to try to afford uncapped and skyrocketing rents, and this is so cruel. $400 plus per week is now becoming ‘normal’ for even just 2 bedrooms! It should not be permitted in a country such as ours. There’s no REASON for it to be permitted! The government has to be called to account on this. The ‘lucky few’ who are managing well on say $944.30 a week are not representative of the great majority, and the government has blood on their hands for allowing this situation to prevail. What chance do these poor people have? From reports I’ve seen, there are elderly even now forced to try to survive on our STREETS! How safe are they from being bashed, raped or murdered? Is this what any of us want for our loved parents, grandparents, or even ourselves? Those of us more blessed should be helping those less fortunate. I think aged people should have a ‘match’ flatmate or house service in which safe and good people can be arranged to meet, then share accommodation. We live in very stressful and serious times.



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