Close to two-thirds of Australians who turn to welfare agencies for help are going without basic essentials, a new national survey has found, with many missing out on even one substantial meal a day.

The Still Doing It Tough report, to be released today at the Australian Social Policy Conference at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), shows a growing number of people also lack savings for emergencies, a telephone and heating in the home, and are unable to buy medicines prescribed by a doctor.

The research, by Professor Peter Saunders and Melissa Wong of UNSW's Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC), identifies those who cannot afford each of the 26 items regarded by the community as being crucial for all Australians.

These items were selected as the "essentials of life" in a major survey of the general population conducted by the researchers in 2006.

The latest data was collated from a survey conducted in 2008, prior to the onset of the global financial crisis. It found that levels of deprivation and social exclusion had worsened on several counts since similar research was undertaken two years earlier.

"This snapshot was taken when the Australian economy was still booming. If none of that growth trickled down to the poor, one wonders how badly they are faring now that the economy is slowing down," says Professor Saunders.

"The results are a telling indictment of the ability to build on Australia's economic success in making in-roads into some of our most entrenched social problems," the report notes.

Among families, sole parents faced the highest level of deprivation, almost 35 percent above the national average and higher than the average experienced by Indigenous Australians and those with an ongoing disability.

The biggest jump in deprivation - close to 24 percent - was experienced by the unemployed, while the deprivation gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians narrowed slightly.

The study found no evidence of a decline in levels of social exclusion over the period.

More than three-quarters of respondents experienced five or more forms of social exclusion ranging from a lack of participation in social and community activities, lack of access to key services and restricted access to economic resources.

Professor Saunders said that the findings could have an impact on policy development under the Federal Government's social inclusion agenda, which identifies social inclusion as a first-order issue.

The research was conducted in partnership with some of the country's leading government and non-government community sector agencies working to combat disadvantage in Australia. The findings will help to identify priority areas for future action.

More information: The full conference program is available at the SPRC website.

Media contact: For copies of the report / interview requests call Denise Knight, UNSW Media Office | | 02 9385 8920 | 0405 207 685.

The Australian Social Policy Conference is held only every two years and is a key agenda setter. Hosted by UNSW's Social Policy Research Centre, the three-day program (8-10 July) features more than 130 papers, presented by leading national and international policy experts.