Cost of living pressures sees social cohesion hit record low

15 Nov 2023

Financial and cost-of-living pressures are among the top issues impacting Australians' sense of belonging, pride and social cohesion in 2023, according to a major study from The Australian National University (ANU) and the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute.

Economic and social issues, compounded with growing concern about inequality, has seen social cohesion in Australia plummet to its lowest level in 16 years.  

The 2023 Mapping Social Cohesion study of more than 7,500 people found almost half of participants, 48 per cent, believe economic issues are the most important set of problems facing Australia today, followed by housing affordability and shortages (14 per cent).  

"This is comfortably the largest share of the population citing these problems since the question was first asked in 2011," lead researcher Dr James O'Donnell, from ANU, said. 

"With financial pressures heightened, the proportion of people who reported being satisfied with their finances dropped to 61 per cent in 2023, down from 64 per cent in 2022.  

"Twelve per cent of respondents in 2023 reported that they often or sometimes went without food, and 22 per cent often or sometimes could not pay for medicines or health care." 

The study also found about two-in-five Australians, 41 per cent, describe themselves as either poor, struggling to pay their bills or just getting by in 2023. This is up from 37 per cent in 2022.

Dr O'Donnell said Australians are increasingly concerned about economic inequality.  

"A record high 84 per cent of people believe the gap between those with high and low incomes is too large. This is up from 76 per cent in July 2020," he said.  

"People who are struggling financially are much less likely to feel a great sense of worth and belonging in Australia, and much more likely to feel pessimistic about the future. We know social and economic inequalities in Australia negatively impact social cohesion more broadly.  

"With more Australians under financial pressure in 2023, it's perhaps not a surprise that our sense of belonging and connectedness to each other are also lower this year. 

"With more people worried about economic inequality, we're less trusting of government, more worried about the future and less connected to Australian values and society. 

"This is an important call to action for governments and the community to consider policies and programs that give everyone the opportunity to contribute to society to the fullest."  

The study found the proportion of people who feel a great sense of belonging in Australia fell to a record low of 48 per cent in 2023. But despite this decline, the researchers say there are signs of optimism for social cohesion in Australia moving forward.  

"Aussies continue to hold high and growing support for multiculturalism and diversity and remain connected in their local neighbourhoods," Dr O'Donnell said.  

"In 2023, 89 per cent of Australians agree that multiculturalism has been good for Australia.  

"Meanwhile 80 per cent of people feel like they belong in their neighbourhood, while 64 per cent of people think their neighbourhood has a strong sense of community." 

The Scanlon Foundation's Social Cohesion survey has been running since 2007. Read the full report and findings at the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute