It's spreading, and panic should be in the air, especially in the lead-up to the festive season when most Australians are planning the Christmas Day menu and choosing presents for family and friends. I'm not talking about the latest pandemic wave but another "P' word, poverty, whose spread is alarming and whose remedy lies in the hands of those planning the federal budget to be handed down in the middle of 2024. What evidence do we have that times are tough and those living below the poverty line are becoming more numerous? The first reveal is that nearly one-in-five households are now living on less than 60 per cent of national median income (around $650 per week for a single parent with one child). Often, on much less. As most, although not all, are renters, let us consider the Rental Affordability Index released recently by National Shelter and SGS Economics. The detailed study said rental affordability had, with few exceptions, hit "all-time lows" across the nation, including regional areas, once more affordable. Property vacancies have shrunk to low single digits, sometimes nil, creating a highly competitive market - for tenants, that is, not property owners. The gatherings at auction sales are nothing compared to the long queues of prospective renters. Simply, there's a national housing shortfall and not enough homes are being built within the required timeframes. "In the past year renters have been smashed with enormous rent hikes well beyond income growth," says National Shelter CEO, Emma Greenhalgh. Many renters - and increasingly, aspiring homeowners - struggle not only to keep a roof over their heads but to put food on the table. Foodbank says half of all renters were food insecure in the past 12 months, with 3.7 million Australian households unable to adequately to feed themselves and their families. To rely on JobSeeker payments is to be condemned to living below the poverty line, as the Australian Institute's Ebony Bennett explained in these pages recently. Despite this year's small increase, the payment is a certain ticket to housing stress, a poor diet, inability to afford medical care, reduced opportunities to seek work, and potential homelessness. St Vincent de Paul Society data for 2022-23 shows calls for assistance have increased by 20 per cent in the largest states, NSW and Victoria, close to that in other places, and double that in Tasmania. There has also been an unprecedented rise in the number of first-time assistance seekers, which is households that have never sought help from us, nor in all likelihood from other charities. Many are seeking emergency relief. Our NSW call centre reports that 34 per cent of the total number helped are first-timers. In WA, the figure was 31 per cent. Single parents, most likely women, are common, many with young children, which is so sad as we come into Christmas with the expectation of treats on the table and presents under the tree. Other aspects of this "poverty plague" are the increasing numbers of working-poor who have regular but underpaid or insecure jobs, and people on moderate incomes who are struggling to pay their mortgages because of the continual interest rate hikes. The Reserve Bank of Australia's cash rates have risen on 13 occasions since May last year, a total rise of 4.25 per cent, the biggest increase in the shortest period in 40 years. RBA governor Michelle Bullock now says imported costs such as oil prices are not the only cause of the inflation dragon, mentioning "homegrown" factors such as the high costs of seeing a dentist, a hairdresser or dining out. Yet disadvantaged Australians can rarely afford to access any of those services. Then comes the matter of our general wellbeing, which can also be measured, despite the emotional dimension. It, too, is concerning, as the government unveiled in its Measuring What Matters report, launched by Treasurer Chalmers in Canberra. Due to "important determinants of personal wellbeing", notably financial stress and reduced access to housing, Australians came up short, with overall life satisfaction felt to be declining. This trend is becoming more marked amongst younger people, according to studies by CommBank and Deakin University that show 25-29 year olds and lower income Australians are feeling increasingly pessimistic about their standard of living. Mental health issues are one clear indicator, with psychologists and counsellors booked out for months. Charities should not - and cannot - be expected to resolve the hardship that ever more people are facing. Even providing immediate, short-term assistance is a challenge that is outgrowing us. In our pre-budget submission, we urged the Australian government to significantly boost the emergency relief support that many of our clients depend upon. Indicating that these many challenges will receive favourable consideration would be the best present the government could give Australians facing a Christmas that is shaping up as considerably less than joyous. You don't need to be Christian to hope and pray this will be the case.