Drawing back the curtain on unemployment and poverty
17 February 2021
The 2021 United Nations World Day of Social Justice (February 20), promotes a range of social justice issues, including increased efforts to eradicate poverty and removal of barriers to employment opportunities. Looking back on 2020, The Salvation Army’s Lieutenant-Colonel Dr Lyn Edge* recently shared her thoughts in an article published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald newspapers and subtitled ‘we all want a nation that leaves nobody in need’.
Three years ago, a BBC interview went viral when the interviewee’s children ran enthusiastically into his office mid-discussion. In 2020, a clip like that would not even have raised an eyebrow. In 2020, our screens were windows and the curtains were drawn back.
Suddenly, we had glimpses into each other’s homes and lives – noisy children, wayward pets, washing baskets and bookshelves all on display.
2020 also gave a glimpse into the lives of people experiencing unemployment and poverty in a way we had not seen in living memory. As the number of people unemployed or with reduced hours skyrocketed, more of us saw, and then many of us lived, the experience of financial hardship.
People who had never had to deal with Centrelink before suddenly found themselves forming a queue. Indeed, here at The Salvation Army, around 40 per cent of people seeking financial support from us were asking for help for the very first time.
Our EmploymentPlus services saw an increase of people looking for jobs, from 38,000 in March to 58,000 in November. When JobSeeker was at the highest rate in history, we saw people who suddenly lost their jobs struggling to make ends meet.
Fighting the poverty trap
The Salvos have been in the business of helping people who have fallen on hard times for around 140 years in Australia.
We’ve been advocating the government about the rate of the JobSeeker Payment (previously the Newstart Allowance) for what feels like almost as long. The base rate of JobSeeker and Youth Allowance is so low that it acts as a barrier to getting a job. It is so low that, it becomes, in effect, a poverty trap.
Before COVID, we worked with people who had less than $17 a day left after they had paid for housing. When the Coronavirus Supplement first came in, they told us about being able to afford medication, eating fresh fruit and vegetables, buying their kids the right equipment for school. Things that most of us take for granted are luxuries on the old rate of JobSeeker.
Those who are newly unemployed have not yet experienced the old base rate of JobSeeker (without intervention, the rate it will go back to on 31 March 2021). So far, the newly unemployed tourism worker or restaurant manager has been spared the indignity of having to choose between buying groceries or paying for electricity.
I am not naturally a cynic, but it is hard not to notice that when the kinds of people on JobSeeker changed, so did the conditions. These newly unemployed people could never be written off as ‘dole bludgers’. No one seriously believes allowing a newly unemployed pilot to live with dignity would be a disincentive to looking for work.
These newly unemployed give us important glimpses into our society as a whole. They show us that unemployment is rarely a choice and can happen to almost anyone.
With this newfound insight, the case for genuine welfare reform is surely unarguable; JobSeeker must be increased and indexed to wages growth and the Commonwealth Rental Assistance needs major work. I can only speak to what Salvos see every day – the system is broken, and it needs to be fixed.
Now the curtain has been drawn back, it’s not an option to just let it fall again. People are looking into the lounge room of our nation, and we need to make a decision about what we want them to see. I’m sure we all want them to see equality, compassion, and a nation that leaves no one in need.
So, let’s roll up our sleeves because we can do this. To start:
- The Commonwealth Government needs to permanently increase the JobSeeker Payment and the Youth Allowance. Looking at the budgets of people who come to us for help, we believe that an increase of at least $125 a week is needed so that people can afford just the very basics. This needs to also be part of a larger work of welfare reform to ensure ongoing equity and care for all.
- All governments need to work together to develop a plan to end homelessness. Making sure every person has a place to call home will be hard, but Australia has done hard things before and we can do this.
- Each one of us can check the way we think and talk about people who are experiencing hard times. A lot of people tell us that one of the hardest things about becoming unemployed is the indignity and stigma. We can all help end that.
To do these things will be harder than blurring the background in our online meetings, but it will be worth it.
*Lieutenant-Colonel Dr Lyn Edge is Secretary for Mission at The Salvation Army Australia.