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"In survival mode": South Australians tell of life on Newstart

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South Australian Newstart recipients will today tell their stories of life below the poverty line at the Adelaide hearing of the Senate inquiry into the unemployment allowance.

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The one-day sitting at Elizabeth is part of a Senate Committee inquiry set up following widespread pressure to increase the $40-a-day Newstart benefit, which has hardly budged in real terms in 25 years.

The inquiry is also examining what constitutes an acceptable standard of living in Australia including the cost of safe and secure housing; the changing nature of work and insecure work; and the approach to setting income support payments.

The Morrison Government has shrugged off a growing campaign to raise the Newstart allowance, but introduced a trial to drug test recipients and is considering extending the cashless welfare card.

Employment Minister Anne Ruston recently told a Murray Bridge forum that simply raising Newstart would was not the answer to helping people find jobs, and giving more money to recipients with drug or alcohol issues was only likely to “give drug dealers more money and give pubs more money“.

InDaily spoke with two of around a dozen members of the Anti-Poverty Network SA who are giving evidence today.

Rita Sacchetta said her life took a turn when she lost her cleaning job earlier this year.

“I’m 54, female and a single mother. I was sacked in March, sent to Newstart and put with a job network provider and life has pretty much been hell since,” Sacchetta said.

“For just over two months I had no payment. I was continuously ringing Centrelink … I felt like I was in some sort of twilight zone.

“(On one occasion) I had no insulin and I’m diabetic. I said to the girl, I have no money and I need insulin. Her suggestion was: ‘Go to the hospital.’

“I’m in survival mode 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Every minute of my day. I’m 54 and I feel like I’m a burden because I need to rely on my son to give me food.

“I don’t know how they expect me, or anyone of us, to go and actively search for work when we are constantly in survival mode. I mean where’s my next meal coming from? How am I going to pay my rent? How am I going to afford my medication? How can we move from that onto looking for work when for us it’s just basic survival?”

Sacchetta said perceptions that Newstart recipients were young dole bludgers was misinformed.

“It’s not just about young kids. It’s about everyone, from people young to old. I’ve just had to move because I couldn’t afford my rent.

“I’m always just a step away from being homeless.

“They break you.”

Kym Mercer said she too found the very process of dealing with Centrelink for Newstart payments exhausting, but she was doing so on behalf of her children.

Mercer said she has been fighting Centrelink to have her children moved from Newstart to the Disability Support Pension for years.

“My son is currently on Newstart with a medical exemption and my daughter has only just, in the last few weeks, been granted DSP (Disability Support Pension). That was a three-year battle for her,” she said.

Mercer’s kids are among a number of Australians caught between welfare payments, trying to prove they’re eligible for additional benefits.

She said inconsistent and bureaucratic processes made that difficult.

“My daughter still lives at home … and in one system she’s classed as a dependant, in another system she’s classed as independent. For medical and DSP and Carer’s (payment) they’re an adult at 16 but for Rent Assistance they’re not an adult until they’re 25.”

Mercer said people with disabilities stuck on Newstart faced the additional challenge of trying to afford specialist reports just to apply for the DSP.

“As well as the fact that the (Newstart) payment is inadequate to start with,” she said.

The inquiry will hold its final hearing in Alice Springs on Friday, and is expected to reports its findings next March.

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