JobSeeker needs to provide a reasonable safety net

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It took a recession, invoked by a 2020 devastated by the COVID pandemic, to see the Federal Government intervene and provide welfare that brought unemployed folk in Australia above the poverty line*.

Main image: People lining outside Centrelink in Melbourne (Getty Images/Quinn Rooney)

Government interventions at state and federal levels have been critical in staving off destitution for many over the past months, but while the pandemic continues, federal supports are tapering off. I don’t think it is biased to say that Victoria’s economic situation is particularly important to take into account, given the Melbourne lockdown and its ongoing ramifications. Many people are still doing it tough. And the many organisations who are tasked with trying to support them share a sense of dismay as we see Federal Government assistance being wound back fast, although the number of people receiving an unemployment related benefit are more than double that of pre-pandemic Australia. We need to increase decent work opportunities and ensure a reasonable safety net for those out of work if we want to get through this and still claim the ‘fair go’.

In April 2020 the government recognised the need and created a supplement for those on JobSeeker worth $550 a fortnight on top of their pre-existing payment (to total something like $1167 per fortnight). What a relief for many who had been impossibly tasked for so long to somehow make rent, bills, medication and sustenance all come out of the old Newstart payment. This supplement has been reduced over time and will finish up next month, and a permanent increase to the base allowance has now been announced, something that many individuals and organisations have asked after and lobbied for many years. The unfortunate news is that the permanent increase has been set at $3.57 per day above the old, pre-COVID Newstart payment.

This has rightly seen a shocked and dismayed response from individuals who receive the payment, organisations who work to represent people who are on this payment, and the organisations that often provide services to people in receipt of this payment. We know how hard it is for someone to live on this amount of money in Australia. A lot of work, time and energy has gone into demonstrating the need for a substantial raise to the JobSeeker safety net, and this result is a kick in the teeth to those efforts. It is also a case of the Government not listening to its own Senate Committees — a key theme of the recommendations coming from the Senate’s Community Affairs References Committee’s 2020 report is to ensure that all eligible income support recipients do not live in poverty*.

Another finding of the same Senate inquiry into the adequacy of Newstart was that a severely limited safety net is actually a barrier to gaining employment. Being in survival mode makes it hard to think creatively about getting work opportunities, to explore new options and get oneself ready for work or a new role. At the best of times, but especially when there is such a deficit of jobs due to an ongoing pandemic and recession, a severely limited safety net doesn’t make sense. What the Senate inquiry also found was evidence that the mutual obligation requirements system for job seekers was highly complex and difficult to navigate; and pointed to the current system itself as a significant barrier to getting into work.

I, and many people I know, have been on the ‘dole’ at different points in time — between finding a job and finishing up at University, or when a contract with an organisation finished and savings had run out while applying for new jobs or waiting for the paperwork to be processed for the next contract. Generally, it was for a few weeks — and when single and living in a shared house, the ‘dole’ payment was just enough to tide over until being able to find work again. My individual situation was ideal, privileged and still it wasn’t easy navigating the dole and its requirements. It is so different to the situation so many are in now.

 

'Yet again the charity/church/community sector will be relied upon to fill the gaps, with the necessary help of broader community donations and good will, and will do their best to help people doing it tough get by until they can get back into work.'

 

Now is a strange, and quite frankly terrible, time to overall reduce unemployment related payments. Work was a focus of the rhetoric around the government announcement. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself — the social and community sector is highly supportive of a dynamic economy and suite of employment opportunities for unemployed Australians. As a recently released Catholic Social Services Australia discussion paper states: work, if pursued through a lens of duties and responsibilities that are just and freely and equitably agreed upon between employees and employers, it is good for both individuals and society.

What was lacking during the articulation of the rather punitive ‘mutual obligation’ conditions is an acknowledgement of the difficult situation to find stable work that so many people who are receiving an unemployed benefit are in, or the scale of need. The math isn’t difficult. In Victoria during January, the number of folk receiving an unemployment related payment is about 371,000. This is almost 300,000 people more than pre-COVID numbers. This number tells us what a devastating affect the combination of the conclusion of the COVID supplement and this meagre base payment increase will have come the end of this month of March.

 

Figure 1: Graph derived from Department of Social Services publically available — individuals in receipt of Newstart/JobSeeker or Youth Allowance (other) payments.

The $3.57 day increase, with the simultaneous reduction in COVID supplement, means more hard work for social services in Victoria. Organisations, such as Vinnies who largely organise their work via local volunteer cells trying to meet the material needs of their communities — utilising money raised from op shops and donations, are likely to be hard pressed by the need. Pre-pandemic, with less than one quarter of Victoria’s current numbers of people on unemployment payments, organisations were struggling to assist with material needs of those on welfare. Yet again the charity/church/community sector will be relied upon to fill the gaps, with the necessary help of broader community donations and good will, and will do their best to help people doing it tough get by until they can get back into work.

The Federal Government still has a chance to really turn things around, and structurally keep people above the poverty line, and in a position where they can spring forward into work and into all the other joys and opportunities life in Australia can bring as the economy builds steam. They could look, as CSSA’s paper suggests, at providing a Job Guarantee. They could create an expert panel to set the welfare rate in the longer term, rather than simply (and rather arbitrarily) acknowledging what percentage (41.2 per cent) of the minimum wage the new base payment is. They could actively create a system and supports which better assists people into work, rather than placing onerous amounts of job application requirements with the threat of someone’s safety net being taken away. We have seen at the Victorian state government level a number of policy instruments and programs that can be used to assist people into work, and there could be lessons here for the federal level.

For now, the community must band together with service organisations to help out those who are doing it tough.

 

 

Joshua LourenszJosh Lourensz is Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Victoria, the peak body for over 40 organisations who collectively assist over 200,000 Victorians every year.

*It is worth noting, that although I use the words ‘poverty’ and ‘poverty line’ the first recommendations of the Community Affairs References Committee’s 2020 report into the adequacy of Newstart (now JobKeeper) recommended the Australian Government set a national definition of poverty. There are good definitions of a poverty line out there already.

Main image: People lining outside Centrelink in Melbourne (Getty Images/Quinn Rooney)

 

Topic tags: Joshua Lourensz, COVID-19, JobSeeker, welfare, CSSA, CSSV

 

 

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Existing comments

In Europe, Latvia is the 4th poorest country and yet right near the top of the table for helping the unemployed. Some of the richest countries in the world are languishing at the bottom of the table. These include Australia. Stating the obvious, perceptions in (many) rich countries need to change, radically. The character of our nation depends on it.
Pam | 04 March 2021


In Nick Cater's "Critics of dole hike", The Australian, 1/3, is clearly wrong in claiming that a dole payment higher than what is proposed would deter people from looking for work. Many OECD countries that pay higher dole payments have a lower, not higher, unemployment than rate than Australia. Secondly, Nick misses the real or effective rate of unemployment or 15% and 10% underemployment. Impossible odds for most of the unemployed in finding a job. Current Jobseeker payments are being kept at an unnecessary and near starvation levels to encourage the unemployed to look harder for largely non existent jobs.
Marcus L'Estrange | 04 March 2021


Not a bad article but it missed identifying the proposed JobMaker (not a real word) changes to employment of younger Australians where the government will pay wage subsidies for under 35's. It's all good; rest assured, our Attorney General who is currently on leave contemplating what has happened to him has been burning midnight oil to see how these age-defined subsidies can be lawful in IR law and not infringe other legislation as age discrimination. I wonder if buzzards, vultures and crows have self-esteem anxiety issues in their pecking order. If the subsidies go through this makes the hitherto unattractive young JobSeeker more valuable to the prospective employer than any tax payer funded neck tattoo or nose piercing could possibly achieve. Basically, its an investment in a select groups future, admittedly at the expense of a few oldies... not a "safety net" per se but a promissory note. The stronger case for the continued higher JobSeeker payments will be found in family law related to income and living standards becoming "in the manner which they have become accustomed..."; there's no stepping back. F'rinstance, power supplement payments are a clear must have; the cost of that previously unnecessary mobile device is now a personal necessity to rejoin society to receive warnings, utilize QR codes, identify vaccination status.
ray | 05 March 2021


What about those jobs that are not there, but should be? For example, in health and aged care? I heard a remark on the radio the other day that there were psychologists trained for jobs which did not exist, because jobs were limited by government policy.
Peter Horan | 06 March 2021


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