Monday, April 12, 2021

‘I am so scared for my future’: jobseeker cuts are devastating for millions of Australians | Cassandra Goldie | Opinion


Losing your job is devastating, whenever it happens. Twelve months ago, before we had even heard of Covid-19, we already had more than 800,000 people hit by unemployment. While trying to find paid work, people were struggling to survive on the grisly Newstart set at just $40 a day. Food had become a discretionary item, with surveys finding almost three-quarters of people were skipping meals each week regularly. Teeth went unfixed and hair wasn’t cut. Loneliness and depression grew.

As a nation, we had committed one of our greatest fairness failures, allowing our unemployment payment to become one of the lowest in the developed world. Successive governments ignored or demonised people who were unemployed, blaming them for their own fate.

For more than a decade, I have sat with people from all walks of life, listening to you share what it was like losing your job and trying to live on Newstart. Many millions have been affected by this financial destitution and all its terrible effects. Many of you felt silenced, ashamed, internalising the message that, somehow, it was your “fault”. Over time, many of you have also spoken up, no longer prepared to be silent, as you were plunged into poverty, as a result of unemployment, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Each year we fought hard to persuade the latest minister for social services to fix this national disgrace. Survey after research report after economist made the case to lift Newstart. And each year, the latest minister for social services – and there have been many – turned away.

Instead, each federal budget, treasurers came after social security for more cuts, chasing that elusive budget surplus.

2020 changed many things. It has been a harsh year, in so many ways. But this year’s minister for social services, at least for six months, finally increased jobseeker, lifting millions of people and their children out of poverty virtually overnight. With the introduction of the coronavirus supplement, the doubling of jobseeker meant that for the first time in almost 30 years people hit by unemployment could feed themselves three times a day with fresh food, pay their rent and bills, and sleep just a little easier at night as they continued to search for paid work.

So it is hard to describe the devastation and fear now experienced by millions as the federal government cuts away at jobseeker. It is truly the lifeline payment. The queues at Centrelink earlier this year confronted everyone. Many of those people are still out there now and more have joined them. People are still trying to find a job, still frightened that they will lose their home, the power bills won’t get paid, and their mental health will decline. While we work hard to bring jobs back, Treasury predicts unemployment will be at 7.5% by March 2021.

At Acoss we continue to hear from people every day – younger people who cannot get even their first job, single parents frightened of losing their homes and living with their children in the car, a woman in her 50s who spent more than a decade working as a Triple-0 operator hearing from people at the height of fear, crisis and despair. Now herself on jobseeker with PTSD, she is not considered “sick enough” to qualify for the disability pension. Her rent just went up to $355 a week:

I am so scared for my future and feel as if I am worth nothing to anyone. I am begging the government to see that affordable housing for a single female is impossible to find. I really won’t be able to go back to the $40 a day, I won’t be able to afford food, let alone the internet. Please, I’m begging the government because I can’t cope.

Her desperation is shared by more than 3 million people (which includes about 1 million children) at the prospect of the coronavirus supplement being cut again to just $150 a fortnight on New Year’s Day as others celebrate seeing the back of 2020.

It is important to understand the dollars at stake here. From 1 January 2021 the maximum rate of jobseeker with the coronavirus supplement will be cut from $58 a day (about $21,000 a year) to just $51 a day (about $18,500 a year). Originally increased earlier this year to $80 a day (about $29,000 a year) at the beginning of Covid, jobseeker will plunge back down to $40 a day (about $14,500 a year) at the end of March 2021 unless the federal government acts. The gap between the base rate of jobseeker and the minimum wage or the aged pension will be eye-watering. The age pension, not generous by any means, is $67 a day ($24,500 a year). The minimum wage is $107 a day (about $39300 a year). It is also important to remember that more than 1 million people on temporary visas are denied income support altogether.

The advice and evidence from economists, thinktanks and the reserve bank have praised the economic benefits of the government’s original economic packages responding to Covid-19, including the coronavirus supplement. Economists have now rated a permanent, adequate increase to jobseeker, together with social housing, as the best fiscal policy priorities for supporting the economic recovery as we live through Covid-19 into 2021. The OECD agrees. We know that people on jobseeker were spending their recently more adequate incomes on the basics, in local shops and businesses, helping to keep others in jobs. Modelling by Deloitte-Access Economics predicts that removing the coronavirus supplement entirely (as is due on 28 March 2021) would cut $31bn from the economy, resulting in the loss of a further 145,000 jobs.

For those of us who have campaigned for more than a decade for a permanent, adequate increase to jobseeker, it is inexplicable that the federal government has not acted to increase the base rate of jobseeker already. I am constantly asked, why won’t they fix it? What more do they need to be persuaded to act?

In 2020, we showed that, when governments act based on evidence and expert advice, public trust grows. The evidence and expert advice in support of a permanent adequate increase to jobseeker is overwhelming. The support is across sectors and politics, with backing from groups as diverse as the BCA, ACTU, Cancer Council, Country Women’s Association, Investment Council, Australian Retailers Association, KPMG, Deloitte, National Council of Single Mothers and their Children, Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union, Council on the Ageing and other Acoss members, and the list goes on and on and on.

We don’t need more reports, inquiries, surveys. We need this federal government – this prime minister and minister for social services – to act, and fast. We need a permanent, adequate increase to jobseeker urgently, and it needs to be extended to everyone hit by unemployment now.

In 2021, the futures of millions are in your hands.

Cassandra Goldie is CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service

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