Nearly 90% of people on income support payments say the inability to cool their homes in hot weather is making them sick, and even those who have air conditioning avoid using it because it is too expensive, a survey by Australian Council of Social Service has found.
Acoss polled 208 recipients of Centrelink payments in January about their experience of high heat at home, their ability to cool their homes, how the heat affected their physical and mental health, and the costs of their energy bills.
Nearly two thirds of those surveyed – 72.1% of whom were renting privately or in social housing – said they were unable to cool their homes down in periods of hot weather.
Some 89.4% said they sometimes or always felt unwell in the high heat, while 29.8% said they had needed to seek medical care for heat stress, with elderly people or those living with disability worst affected.
Nearly 70% of people surveyed had air conditioning of some form in their home, though many reported it did not function well or only lowered the temperature in one part of the house. Some 94.5% of people with air conditioning said they avoided using it because it cost too much.
“This is an untenable situation,” the report’s authors wrote, noting that many survey participants called on governments to do more to help them.
Wagga Wagga residents Liz, 52, and Mike, 62, live with their two children and both receive Austudy while they retrain to help fill the teacher shortage. They told Guardian Australia they have tried all kinds of things to help keep their rental home cool, including blacking out the windows with cardboard and placing fans throughout, with limited success.
“There’s bugger all insulation in the roof, and once it gets a bit over 30 degrees it’s just really hot and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Liz, who asked that the family’s surname not be used.
Mike, who manages numerous chronic health conditions including diabetes, atrial fibrillation and obstructive sleep apnea, has found his health significantly affected by the heat, but there is little he can do other than stay hydrated and sit in front of the evaporative cooler.
The family said 90% of their electricity bill was running the cooling system, as their cooking and hot water is still on gas. The last electricity bill they received was about $700 for the quarter. The maximum Austudy payment for a couple with children is $306.30 per week.
Liz said the government ought to put a cap on how much energy companies can charge, and help people in rental properties insulate their houses to a basic standard.
She also called for an increase in income support payments. “We’re basically living in poverty until we get our degrees, and jobseeker is pathetic,” she said. “You can’t study in the heat. And it impacts our kids, too.
“I was really hopeful that the Labor party would get in [to federal government] and do something to help people, increase welfare payments, but I don’t know if they’re going to. But it’s really essential.”
Acoss called on commonwealth, state and territory governments to prioritise retrofitting public and community housing for improved energy efficiency – ideally, making them entirely electric and powered by renewables – as well as mandating minimum energy efficiency standards for all rentals.
The report reiterated Acoss and other advocacy organisations’ long-running calls to substantially lift income support payments to at least $73 per day, boost commonwealth rent assistance, and to index those payments to wages as well as the consumer price index.
Acoss chief executive Cassandra Goldie said the survey again showed how the climate crisis affected people on low incomes “first, worst, and longest”.
“Too many people are living in housing that is poorly insulated and far too hot in summer. Soaring energy bills and woefully inadequate income support levels mean they cannot afford to keep themselves cool – and this is having a serious impact on their physical and mental health,” Goldie said.
She called on the federal government to provide debt relief to struggling Australians and invest in energy efficiency for low-income housing in the May budget.