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Without JobSeeker, inequality will rise



In last year’s encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis spent time drawing on the well-worn parable of the Good Samaritan. He suggested its regular retelling is a function of its simplicity and its universality. We have all encountered a person suffering, and we have all had to decide what action we’ll take. Francis suggests this frames the key decision for our lives: will we be like the priest and Levite in the parable who walk by, or the Samaritan who shows compassion, and acts?

Der barmherzige Samariter painting (Paula Modersohn-Becker/Wikimedia Commons)

The parable expands the definition of neighbour. It urgently asks us to look to those at risk, even those we might not want to see. Today, our neighbour includes the nearly one million Australians relying on JobSeeker who risk being left at the side of the road if their payment reverts to the pre-pandemic $40 a day on 31 March. Some, like Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, seem to be walking by. Others, like Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe, seem willing to stop and show compassion. Lowe suggests ‘a wide consensus in the community that the previous [unemployment payment] should be increased permanently.’

Maybe this consensus has formed because we recognise the problem of inequality in our society. A report from the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) at the end of last year confirms the depth and extent of the inequity we live with. It uses pre-pandemic numbers and is the more sobering for it.

The size and spread of government payments in past 12 months has held steady, and to some extent, improved the circumstances of many on low incomes or government support. The withdrawal of that support risks returning many to payments that do not provide for basic human needs.

The ACOSS report shows that, pre-pandemic, half of those on Jobseeker were likely to be in households in poverty, and those who weren’t suffered rental stress and were stymied by a lack of financial reserves. Without the coronavirus supplement the average after-tax income of these households in the bottom 10 per cent of income earners is $592 per week. This contrasts with the $6,796 per week taken home after tax by those in the top 5 per cent. The household wealth of this top 5 per cent is five times that of even a middle-income household.

There’s no surprise in the range of incomes across households; difference is to be expected in a regulated but free labour market. But if the range becomes too great, serious social consequences follow. The gamut of Australian household income is clearly at this unsustainable level, and we have recently witnessed what happens when a society stands on such a precipice for too long. The violent unrest in a divided United States is a reminder of what’s at stake for us.


'It’s only when people have their basic needs met — when they are not living in poverty and can access transport and the internet — can they present in a way that gives them a chance for employment.'


According to the ACOSS report, unequal wage distribution is the dominant reason for income inequality, largely due to unequal access to full time employment. Access to full time work is the defining differential in an increasingly divided society. Only 27 per cent of households in the lowest 20 per cent have at least one full-time wage earner, whereas 82 per cent of the middle 20 per cent of households do. Income gaps come to have cumulative effects on the wealth held by households. The bottom 60 per cent of households have just 16 per cent of the wealth held in Australian households.

Catholic Social Teaching is attuned to the problem of wealth and poverty intersecting in society, acting against the ideal of economic development occurring in systems of solidarity. It is also clear about the right to work and the benefit of work for human dignity.

A recent report by Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA) highlights these commitments in the context of Australian inequality. Recognising the critical problems of un-and under-employment, job insecurity and sluggish wage growth, its key recommendation is that Australia’s economic policy levers should be set to bring about a full employment economy.

Since deregulation begun in the 1980s, Australia’s policy settings have accepted a rate of unemployment as the price for wage growth. But that wage growth is slowing, and there are insufficient hours of work available for those with jobs, let alone those completely unemployed. The problem of unemployment and under-employment, even pre-pandemic, is not predominantly one of people unwilling to work. There’s a scarcity of appropriate jobs for those who want them.

The CSSA report suggests that the community health, aged and disability care sectors provide the basis for government seeking full employment in combination with employment programs and a Job Guarantee. This is work we know needs to be done thanks to multiple Royal Commissions showing the inadequacy of staffing levels in a range of care environments. It makes sense to allow people who might otherwise be receiving government support to earn income, in steady employment, through work that benefits the community.

The push for full employment doesn’t alleviate the need for an adequate unemployment payment. Nor is there evidence that the payment of a living income by government is an impediment to people seeking paid work. It’s only when people have their basic needs met — when they are not living in poverty and can access transport and the internet — can they present in a way that gives them a chance for employment. Those who hold that ‘wide consensus’ of the need to increase JobSeeker want to give all Australians that chance. It’s incumbent on the Federal Treasurer, and the Prime Minister, not avert their gaze and walk by.



Julian ButlerJulian Butler SJ is a Jesuit undertaking formation for Catholic priesthood. He previously practiced law, and also has degrees in commerce and philosophy. Julian is a contributor at Jesuit Communications, a chaplain at Xavier College, and a board member at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Der barmherzige Samariter painting (Paula Modersohn-Becker/Wikimedia Commons)

Topic tags: Julian Butler, Jobseeker, ACOSS, CSSA, Josh Frydenberg



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Existing comments

Parables...ah, if only we could be always so uncertain of what things mean but have the belief it was all good. First up, the Good Samaritan is only in Luke, the other Gospels omit it. It is accepted that Luke was written 3rd of the Gospels, maybe 80 years after events. While we're on the subject of Samaritans, Jesus instructed his disciples not to go to cities of Gentiles or Samaritans (Mark/Matthew) which seems a bit of a caution or a dislike - but who can know? John describes Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well and asking for a drink but we don't know if this chance meeting of technical foes was before or after the caution to his disciples. Luke doesn't quote Jesus on Samaritans. The story winds up that the Samaritan leaves the still sick injured guy at an inn, leaving the inn-keeper some (2?) denari and promising to return and pay the rest laterzzzz...but we don't know if he ever came back or paid up. So perhaps similarly in an age of JobKeeper, the Australian Government have done the Samaritan "first-aid" and some financial assistance but the Bible's unfinished happy ending remains ill-defined then and now.

ray | 11 February 2021  

I don't believe you could say that the Government has 'done its bit' by finishing the Jobseeker in March 2021; the return to $40 a day is below the cost of living. The payment has not been increased in 25 years, yet the cost of living has risen well above that original benchmark. Natural justice would deem that the Federal Government provide a higher payment to cover the living cost for an unemployed person. Justice Higgins in the Harvester case of 1922 set a benchmark, which provided for the needs of a family. There are people begging in the streets of Australia because of the low payment prior to the COVID-19 inspired increased payment. Does this Government want the begging to recommence on 1 April 2021? How callous and selfish can the Government be to punish the unemployed and yet reward others who do not deserve assistance? Jesus said to his disciples that they should help their neighbour. Jesus said that you should love your neighbour as yourself. I think that includes the unemployed person asking you for a hand-out, don't you?

JOHN WILLIS | 11 February 2021  

Full employment is an anachronistic relic of the industrial age. It once applied to the able-bodied adult male under 50 and was a single wage capable of supporting a wife and 4 children, secured home ownership and access to free education, healthcare and consumer goods of the time. Now every person is required to be employed full-time simply to maintain a precarious existence of living pay to pay while dreading the next rise in rent and knowing that you'll never be able to afford a home, even with two university educated parents working as much as they can manage while juggling childcare, school and often ageing parents. This is not about the 'dignity of work' - work provides dignity only because our society offers no other way to achieve it, and frankly, the modern workplace with it's increasing demands for data based adminstrivia, low wages, 'flexibility' and surveillance that encroaches upon the ability to feel and experience subjective human emotions; wellbeing tests, kpis now include motivation, passion and commitment to the team and goals of organization. This is not human dignity but it's opposite. If we had different priorities life could be dignified while earning less. Centrelink actively shames and punishes the unemployed. Waiting on hold for an hour being warned not to abuse staff induces shame and suffering.

michelle smith | 12 February 2021  

The unemployment rate is expected to remain above the pre-pandemic level until at least the end of 2022. As a consequence, the number of people living below the poverty line will continue to be substantially greater than it was pre-pandemic. How is that justifiable in a country as rich as Australia? The Reserve Bank has set its target unemployment rate at 4.5%, condemning almost 1 in 20 Australians of working age to live on JobSeeker. The price of prosperity is that many fellow citizens must live in penury. Ironically, economists project that the loss of spending power among the unemployed will depress economic activity and create further unemployment. Logically, a government that cares for the good of all has just two possible responses. One is to raise JobSeeker to a level that will enable all those that government requires to be unemployed to live at an acceptable standard. The other is to legislate a ‘jobs guarantee’ so that all who are willing to work can have decently paid employment. In either case, the increased spending by those who benefit directly will stimulate economic activity and benefit us all. Not to do so is economic self-harm.

Peter Albion | 12 February 2021