As Sydney smashes daily Covid case records and Melbourne struggles through its sixth lockdown, politicians are ignoring the devastating consequences of denying support to everyone who needs it, and they’re hoping the rest of us will too.
It’s now abundantly clear shutting down the economy hurts the poorest most. Lockdowns are necessary, but the social crises they create are optional.
The Morrison government has hoodwinked us into believing it’s provided generous financial support. It’s not true. For 90% of people on income support there’s not a dollar of help.
The government is hellbent on spinning its way through this Delta wave. Despite the treasurer’s boast about a fall in unemployment in recent figures, a large part of the drop is likely due to people leaving the labour market.
Despite what they’d have us believe, the so-called recovery isn’t rosy. After 18 months of economic travails and unpredictable lockdowns, we have even less financial resilience than we did before the pandemic. The number of people on jobseeker has increased by 36% compared with pre-Covid levels.
With our leaders in convenient denial, people across the political spectrum are calling for jobkeeper to return. But another misguided payment to employers is not the answer.
Exhausted by lockdowns, exhausted by fear of the virus and uncertainty over our financial future, shackling people to an employer only provides more opportunities for exploitation – just ask anyone coerced into doing odd jobs for their boss last year, or one of the 64% of women who say they have been harassed at work.
Jobkeeper delivered such huge windfalls to big business that some have been shamed into handing back millions, while still banking huge profits from the scheme. We can’t afford another failed program that redirects public money to billionaires while shafting the education, arts and caring sectors. It discriminated against women, younger people and migrants; a corporate bailout sold as helping workers.
The current disaster payment is a slight improvement because it’s paid directly to workers, but the confusing and perverse eligibility criteria are divisive. Right now, some people get the $750 disaster payment while others try to survive on $315 a week – nearly half the poverty line. Crisis or not, it makes no sense and is needlessly cruel to create two classes of people, only to give less generous support to those most in need.
With cheap goods flying off supermarket shelves, more of us are confronted with the choice of skipping meals, falling behind on bills or paying rent.
Surviving on jobseeker is not Covid-safe. Buying the essentials forces us to leave home. Wealthy people get groceries delivered and poor people get Covid exposure. The nightmare scenario is transmission at a food bank.
As we battle Delta, we need payments that ensure everyone – especially unemployed people – can afford to stay home safely, even as living costs go up. We need to make sure families feeling the pressure of being cooped up together don’t experience unnecessary financial stress that can contribute to violence and abuse. Poverty also traps us in unemployment, even the frontline workers we most need as our health system struggles.
As Covid spreads further into our communities, so does inequality. To solve both problems, we need to protect everyone.
There’s an obvious, fair solution that protects public health, supports everyone who needs it and aids the economic recovery: boosting Centrelink payments and making them easy to access. Guarantee $600 a week to anyone who needs it, including everyone on income support, regardless of occupation, visa status, family situation or any other circumstance. Pay it directly to us, not our employers.
We know this works because we did it last year.
Providing easy access to payments above the poverty line means both employed and unemployed people have less mental health strain, are less likely to risk working if sick, and can afford to live in a home that has space to isolate when needed.
2020 showed us other benefits: while jobseeker was higher, people previously unable to cover basic living costs improved their wellbeing and made more productive use of their time. Even as we were cut off from loved ones, with the spectre of a deadly virus hanging over us, there were fewer deaths by suicide in Victoria despite the long lockdown. Given the links between financial hardship, low incomes and suicide, we don’t think it’s a coincidence.
The pandemic hits us in unpredictable waves. What we’re seeing now is far worse than in 2020 when unemployment payments were above the poverty line. We’ll be living with restrictions for months yet.
The economic crisis will only get worse as cases go up and the health crisis will only get worse the longer the government holds out. Covid has shown us poverty is a policy choice. It’s now glaringly obvious it’s one that endangers the whole community.
The government can take decisive action, as it has before, to help keep us safe and protect the whole community from more infections. It’s urgent that they do.
The current settings aren’t working. Let’s do something we know does. Return to the most successful policy of 2020 and provide income support above the Henderson poverty line, and make sure anyone who needs it can get it.
Jay Coonan and Kristin O’Connell are social policy experts from the Antipoverty Centre. Jeremy Poxon is an antipoverty activist and volunteers with the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union