The JobSeeker unemployment payment (previously NewStart) was effectively doubled by a “coronavirus supplement” after the pandemic struck, taking the payment from about $550 per fortnight, to $1100.
It was the first time the payment, worth an average $40 a day, had increased in real terms for 26 years.
But the coronavirus supplements have been progressively wound back in recent months. In September, it dropped to $815 per fortnight for a single person with no dependents, and on January 1 was cut again to $715.
The supplement is due to be axed entirely on March 31, and will return to the pre-pandemic payment of $550 per fortnight unless the Morrison Governments agrees to a permanent boost, as called for by welfare groups, Labor and the Greens, and backed by reports claiming a wider, immediate economic benefit of extra spending by welfare recipients.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week said his government needed ‘more data’ on the most recent labour force figures before making a decision.
South Australian charities St Vincent de Paul Society, Foodbank and Uniting Communities told InDaily they’d seen an increase in service demands in line with the gradual JobSeeker payment cuts, with Foodbank SA CEO Greg Pattinson saying a $250 cut in September caused a surge in demand for people needing food.
“We saw a definite increase in the number of people coming to Foodbank for food and we’re really bracing for March when that COVID supplement stops as to what’s going to happen,” he said.
Pattinson said currently about 150,000 South Australians were dependent on the organisation for support, up about 10 per cent for the same time last year.
St Vincent de Paul Society SA CEO Louise Miller Frost told InDaily while the Society had initially experienced an increase in demand from a small number of newly unemployed people at the beginning of the pandemic, the number of South Australians calling upon the organisation to help stay afloat declined when the JobSeeker payment was first increased.
“The people that we normally see, the people who are in crisis for months and months, the people who really rely on us for food for their families as part of their income – those people who are living in poverty on JobSeeker as a family or an individual – we didn’t hear from them,” she said.
“For the first time, in a very long time, they weren’t in crisis.
“What we heard from them is they had the car fixed, or they were able to buy shoes for the kids, or they could pay their rent and their electricity and buy medicines.
“So they weren’t having to make those decisions and those things that put them into crisis and make them end up on our door.”
Miller Frost said while the number of crisis calls to the organisation also declined initially, the call volume was rapidly growing with each JobSeeker payment cut.
The charity is among a range of voices calling for JobSeeker payments to be permanently boosted to not only help lift people out of poverty, but stimulate the economy.
In a letter today to InDaily, Miller Frost cited a recent Deloitte Access Economics report that highlighted the impact of removing the COVID supplement on the nation’s job market.
“If you give the middle class tax relief, and everyone loves a good tax cut, people pay down debt and save their money. It’s not going back into the economy,” she said.
“If you give it to people who are going to need it to live, people who are going to spend it on food and clothes and to get their car repaired and medicines … that churns the economy.
“We want to grow the economy at any time but … particularly at the moment when we’re trying to financially recover in a world when we don’t know when the next pandemic wave may hit us.”
Uniting Communities said it was particularly worried about housing affordability stress and an increase in domestic violence as a result of the upcoming payment cut.
“The housing market is ridiculously tight and that’s a supply issue because people aren’t moving interstate, overseas, there’s not the turn over for housing,” Uniting Communities advocacy manager Mark Henley said.
“We have the demand for housing but there’s just not the normal levels of supply, so prices are being pushed up.
“When housing prices go up it means people in the rental market on lower levels are the ones who are most vulnerable to housing risk and housing affordability stress.
“Sadly there are also concerns about financial stress leading to high level of family violence and domestic violence and child protection issues. They are often the consequences of extreme financial pressure.
“We are on alert across a whole range of services about the level of demand that may well come through.”
According to the not-for-profit’s website, it works alongside more than 80,000 South Australians each year providing support for housing, financial and energy services. It also offers 24-hour crisis support through its Lifeline call centre.
Henley said in the past 12 months call volume to Lifeline had continued to sit 20-25 per cent above the corresponding month in the previous year, as well as experiencing “mini increases” in call volume with each new COVID outbreak.
He said he’s expecting to see that number rise in March.
InDaily contacted the Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston.
You can reach LifeLine 24 hours a day seven days a week by dialling 13 11 14. Beyond Blue and headspace are other national organisations offering comprehensive mental health support.
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