Surviving on Newstart: life below the poverty line

When we think of poverty, often images of global crisis, starvation and sleeping rough on the streets come to mind. For many of us here in Australia these images are of the ‘other’ – people elsewhere in the world. But poverty is a lot closer than we think. Poverty can look like having to choose between paying the mortgage or the kids’ much needed school uniform; paying the electricity bill or doing a full week’s worth of food shopping.

In Australia, 13.3% of people and 17.4% of children are living in poverty. This equates to nearly three million people Australia wide, according to the 2016 Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) Poverty in Australia report. The report found that 57.4% of those living in poverty relied on social security payments as their main income and 32% received wages as their main income.

It is probably not surprising to many of us that Centrelink’s Newstart payment, a fortnightly payment described as a ‘jobseeker allowance,’ is levelled at well below Australia’s poverty line. A single  adult with no dependent children can receive a maximum of $535.60 a fortnight on Newstart; a single adult with dependent children can receive $579.30. ACOSS reports that an Australian single adult earning less than $426.30 per week, or $852.60 a fortnight, is living under the poverty line.

While the concept of a jobseeker allowance might sound understandable on the surface, the reality for many people is that significant time spent living on Newstart payments can have serious effects on their financial situation. Some are going as far to say that the low rate of Newstart is actually causing a hindrance to job seeking. Rather than helping people through a time of  employment transition, many are getting trapped in a cycle of poverty.

At the recent 41st Annual Meeting of the Synod of WA, the Uniting Church WA agreed to request that the Australian “Federal Government commit to immediately begin a process of increasing the  Newstart and Youth Allowance rate so that those who receive them have the resources to live above the poverty line.” They are also calling for a “change in approach to social services that is more holistic and prioritises cultural, social and emotional wellbeing among those who are unemployed.”

Dr Alison Atkinson-Phillips, Chair of the Uniting Church WA Social Justice Commission, reiterated at the Synod meeting that people living in poverty in Australia are often not who we think.

“Too often, we talk about these kinds of issues assuming that they affect the poor people ‘out there’, and I wanted to remind you that they affect all kinds of people in our community. You probably know someone who is impacted by this, but often people don’t talk about the struggle of living on Newstart because of the way people who need social support have become increasingly demonised  in this country,” she said.

Margaret Muntinga, Manager of Independent Living Services at UnitingCare West, and Rhonda Livingstone, Team Leader of Creditcare, UnitingCare West’s Financial Counselling and Emergency Relief services, said there are many reasons people find themselves living on Newstart payments. People living with addiction or mental health issues can end up living on Newstart and needing a  range of support to improve their situation.

In WA, there is also a large group of people who have been earning high incomes in the mining or construction fields who find themselves unemployed after their jobs are made redundant in a  changing economic climate. With high mortgages and reducing jobs in these fields, many are finding it hard to gain new employment. While people living in rental properties can also receive a  Rent Assistance payment from Centrelink, those with mortgages are ineligible, and are also required to pay council rates.

“People with mortgages who’ve lost their employment or have had a downturn in employment are the ones finding it really hard because they’re still committed to that mortgage amount,” Rhonda  said. “They’ll drop from quite a substantial wage down to Newstart and it doesn’t even cover their mortgage.”

“We hear a lot about people in the mining industry, but also the building industry,” Margaret added. “A lot of construction [in WA] has died. A lot of people like bricklayers, plasterers, all those guys that used to build houses who just don’t have work anymore and haven’t had for some time – most of them probably do have mortgages.

“[Newstart] is a job seeking allowance but it’s very, very difficult for people to live on while they are without work,” Margaret said. “It’s certainly not good and you can see how it would lead people into a downward spiral.”

Margaret added that when some of these people pursue further study in order to change careers, they find that the Austudy payment is significantly less than Newstart, making study a harder  option. She said that often people do need to consider finding work in a different field.

Georgie* found herself permanently living on Newstart after illness. She had a thriving business in Pinjarra providing deep tissue massage. After becoming ill with cancer as a single woman aged in her 50s, her business folded, her mental health spiralled and she found herself unable to cope, both financially and emotionally. She had overcome her cancer, following treatment, but was left financially unstable.

At this time in her life, Georgie had become extremely vulnerable and unable to find stable work.

With the support of her daughter, Georgie was connected with local community service providers including St Vincent de Paul and FinUCAre, a service supported by Mandurah and South Mandurah Uniting Churches providing emergency relief and ongoing financial counselling. Working with FinUCAre, Georgie managed to get a handle on her debt and was able to keep her  mortgage. After around five years of receiving support from the organisation, they now help her manage to live on her low income of Newstart payments.

Kerry Birch, Georgie’s caseworker and member of Pinjarra Uniting Church, helped Georgie to get back on her feet.

“I met Kerry and life really started to change,” Georgie said. “She held off the council with my house rates, she sorted out all my amenities, all my bills and gave me a bit more courage. I didn’t end  up under the bridge, which was where I was envisioning I was going.

“From then it was tight, I had to keep my money really tight with Newstart to pay these bills. Slowly and surely, with Kerry’s help, I got all these bills paid and got on top of it all.”

Now, Georgie picks up cleaning jobs here and there to help get by, and she volunteers making baby blankets for the local hospital – a requirement of receiving Newstart payments. While her debts  are back on track, life on such a low income is still not easy. She manages by paying attention to supermarket sales, trying to make items such as underwear and washing powder last as long as  possible, swapping unused items for helpful ones with friends and community members, getting assistance from local charities when its needed, and cutting back on certain products – like using  powdered milk instead of fresh.

It’s difficult to manage, but with support Georgie said she’s doing much better than she was.

“I’ve still got a mortgage, so I still go and get financial help and financial guidance from Kerry [at FinUCAre]. In my opinion, she’s the best,” she said.

“I still struggle through the fortnight, but I don’t hesitate to go and get help now if I need it. Whereas at that stage, I only went because my daughter could see I was desperate.

“I got into the position due to mental health, but now that I’m back on track, I still wouldn’t be able to live on Newstart solely, without the help of financial counselling or places like St Vinnies.”

Georgie feels the system needs to change, especially for people as they get older and nearing retirement age.

People with supportive families and networks may find their way through time spent living on Newstart, but some don’t have this kind of support.

Dr Alison Atkinson-Phillips believes those who are more fortunate have a role to play in easing the burden for others.

“We, as the church and as the Australian community, have a moral obligation to, in a sense, become that supportive family,” Alison said. “To fill the gap by providing an adequate base of financial  support that will prevent people spiralling further into debt, ill health or relationship breakdown.

“I believe God calls us to be a flourishing community and the current policy approach, the current payment levels, make it impossible for some members of our community to flourish.

“It’s not hard to find a Gospel imperative for this. Jesus taught us to care for the least among us, and that whenever we fail to care for someone who is being overlooked or ignored, we fail to care  for Godself.”

*name has been changed

Inspired?

Anti-poverty Week will be held from 15–21 October 2017. For more info visit antipovertyweek.org.au.

The annual Anti-poverty Week Ecumenical Service will be held on Tuesday 17 October, 1.00pm, at Uniting Church in the City, Wesley Perth. Amanda Hunt, CEO of UnitingCare West will speak on the theme of ‘Listening to those at the front-line.’ A free simple soup lunch will be served from 12noon. To RSVP contact Marg Staff at marg.staffa@wa.uca.org.au or call 9260 9800.

Download the ACCOS Poverty in Australia 2016 Report at acoss.org.au.

For assistance with financial counselling, contact FinUCAre on 9581 1281 or UnitingCare West on 1300 663 298.

Find out more about financial counselling in WA at financialcounsellors.org.

Heather Dowling

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