By Meika Bottrill | @meikabottrill
As Australia begins to relax COVID-19 restrictions, many are concerned that the JobSeeker payments will be the next to go. (Image Source: United States Studies Centre)
Advocates for the JobSeeker scheme have spoken out about their disappointment with the speculation of payments returning to the equivalent of $40 a day once the COVID-19 stimulus package ends.
On March 30 2020, the government announced they would double welfare payments in response to the rapid rise in unemployment rates due to COVID-19.
Existing and new recipients on JobSeeker currently receive a further $550 per fortnight on top of their normal rates.
Before COVID-19, there were numerous enquiries to increase the JobSeeker rate (formally known as NewStart) arguing rates have not changed in real terms since 1994.
And with the COVID-19 supplement due to end in September this year, many argue that these payments cannot return to their original rates.
The Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU) is an organisation run by the unemployed that protects the rights and dignity of the unemployed through national advocacy and campaign work.
Youth Ambassador for the AUWU, Avery Howard, believes that the previous $550 payment per week is simply not enough.
“Unemployed and underemployed people do not receive enough financial support from the government,” he said.
“The AUWU is advocating for the JobSeeker payment – along with all other social security payments – to be permanently raised to above the poverty line.”
The increased JobSeeker payments are finally allowing recipients to afford basic essentials and healthcare: something they were missing out on before COVID-19.
“People [now] on JobSeeker have told us that they’ve been able to eat fresh food and regular meals, buy essentials and other items to help during winter, access vital services such as healthcare, and generally keep their heads above water during this crisis,” Mr Howard said.
“Removing the COVID-19 supplement and putting an estimated 1.7 million people into poverty will mean that those people won’t be able to access those vital services.”
A recent Senate inquiry into the adequacy of JobSeeker outlines the conditions of people living on these payments, describing their daily challenges to secure and afford the essentials which include housing, food, clothing, medication and transport.
“It [the enquiry] shows that the rate of payment is too low to survive, which is why we should not return to the lower rate,” Mr Howard said.
In 2018 Poverty and Inequality Australia reported that the updated poverty line – after housing costs – is $370 per person per week.
The maximum weekly JobSeeker rate – before the COVID-19 supplement – is $282.85.
Associate professor Michael O’Neil is currently the executive director for the South Australian Centre for Economic Studies and estimates that when the COVID-19 supplement ends JobSeeker payments need to be raised by $110 to $120 per week from the original level.
“This is to ensure individuals do not fall into poverty and that they have the resources to maintain good health and the resources to look for employment,” he said.
Speculation has grown surrounding the likelihood of JobSeeker returning to its rate of $40 per day once the COVID-19 stimulus package ends.
“I don’t believe the government will be able to take it back to the old level especially as unemployment will be considerably higher over the next two to three years,” Mr O’Neil said.
“The payment is far too low especially when one considers the increase in [the] cost of living and rental costs.”
As of June 9, JobSeeker recipients will be required to return to meet their mutual obligations in order to receive payments, something that was voided in March earlier this year.
These mutual obligations require welfare recipients to actively seek work and contact 20 potential job offers per month.
In the 2017-18 Budget, The Federal Government increased mutual obligations for job seekers aged 30-49 from 30 hours to 50 hours per fortnight spent completing Work for The Dole, training or paid/voluntary work.
This increase now matches mutual obligations that are required from welfare recipients under 30 years old.
While mutual obligation requirements are increasing the JobSeeker payment has not increased in real terms for 26 years.
Mr O’Neil said reasons behind the rate not increasing is one part neglect of the employed and one part “a decision to erode the value of the benefit as an inducement to seek work.”
“What is needed is assistance, indeed incentives and rewards for many individuals to build skills, gain further education, invest in themselves so that they have the skills for employment,” he said.
“In that way, JobSeeker and other payments would be viewed as a ‘safety net, a platform on which to build’ as this is the key to employment, to labour productivity and for economic growth. We want a skilled Australia.”
In a press conference, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said reducing unemployment levels is his primary focus at the moment.
“The thing that matters is getting Australians back into work… [and] getting Australian businesses back open because when that happens, there will be no need for those levels of income support,” he said.
“Success for our economy is when we’re able to get ourselves out of the situation which requires such enormous taxpayer support.
“If people are in jobs, they don’t need income support and that’s my task. That’s the state’s task. That’s all of our tasks, to support businesses.”