During the past decade, as CEO of the South Australian Council of Social Service, I have spoken to hundreds of people who are unemployed and underemployed. And many people working at, and leading, the services that support them.
I’ve repeatedly heard first-hand what the cruelly low rate of income support has meant for people as they’ve searched desperately for work to put food on the table, keep a roof over their families’ heads, buy medicine and pay bills.
So it was with desperate disappointment that I heard the news that the Federal Government won’t be increasing JobSeeker payments to an adequate level. This level is identified as up to, and beyond, a $25-a-day increase on the old pre-COVID-19 $40-a-day rate. Instead, the rise, revealed yesterday, will be just $3.57 a day.
The call for a decent increase has been united. Not just from unemployed people and helping organisations, but also business groups and economists.
In fact, 10 years ago in his wide-ranging review, former Treasury Department secretary Ken Henry recommended a $50-a-week increase. It didn’t happen.
Just weeks ago, Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe called for an increase as a matter of “fairness”.
A Deloitte report in September reinforced what many know – that every dollar the government additionally invests in JobSeeker generates a significant economic return, helping keep unemployed people healthy, and paving the road out of recession.
The last time the payment was permanently increased in real terms was in 1994. Australia, the “lucky country”, where everyone deserves a “fair go”, has failed this fairness test. Meanwhile, there is only one job for every nine people looking – and even fewer jobs in many of our regional areas.
We also don’t know how bad things will become when JobKeeper and eviction moratoriums end. The total number of jobs has so far barely recovered to pre-pandemic levels (and not in all areas) – and that is with the assistance of JobKeeper in maintaining them.
We don’t know how many more people will still lose their jobs, or their homes, in the weeks and months to come.
What we do know is that the increase announced by the government yesterday is simply miserly, and falls far short of what is needed. To put it in perspective, the resulting amount is well under half the minimum wage.
It’s so far short of what is right and needed so unemployed people can keep putting their best foot forward when a job opportunity knocks.
This is an opportunity missed, and the costs will be far-reaching for our local communities and our economy.
Ross Womersley is CEO of SACOSS. This opinion piece was published in The Advertiser on 24 February 2021.