Sydney Morning Herald

It took this virus to expose our meanest streak - the pitiful Newstart allowance

Sydney Morning Herald logo Sydney Morning Herald 25/03/2020 21:40:00 Mark Mordue

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Remember the good old days, pre-lockdown? Let me take you back to just a few weeks ago. A woman on a Work for the Dole program needs to leave early from her day at the Addison Road Community Organisation in Marrickville. The reason: she has been offered a ride home by a friend who has turned up to shop at Addi Road's Food Pantry, a low-cost food rescue supermarket that services people in need across Sydney's inner west.

The real issue is she does not have enough money to get public transport here again tomorrow, and so she's attempting to avoid "compliance failure" with her Work for the Dole contract. She is broke. If she declines her friend's free ride now, the journey home later will use up what little is left on her Opal card. She's embarrassed about this. And she gets more awkward as she struggles to find the right person to ask about leaving, retelling her story a couple of times.

This is what poverty has been like on Newstart, which paid most recipients $278 a week. Little problems added up to disasters. You didn't fulfill your Work for the Dole obligations to the letter today? You will be cut off from benefits by the job provider managing your case. Perhaps you decide to catch public transport without using a topped-up Opal card - fearing you'll be stripped of your Newstart payment if you can't afford the trip to work tomorrow, all the while knowing you risk a minimum fine of $200 for fare evasion. An amount so bruising it could destroy you.

Pictures: Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Australia

Most people on Newstart have had to pay rent and all expenses with that $278. If you can cut it on that in Sydney, you're a magician. A magician who watches life go on all around you - and sees how invisible you've become. Finding a $2 coin on the floor can be like a blessing from God.

Newstart payments, of course, were never enough to live on. A chorus of conservative voices has long said so - John Howard, Barnaby Joyce and fellow Nationals MP Pat Conaghan, the Business Council of Australia. And now - do we give thanks to coronavirus? - the federal government admits as much. Renaming it the Jobseeker allowance, it has doubled the payment, an extra $550 a fortnight, to spare the multitudes of newly unemployed from the shock of the wretched existence known to the already unemployed.

a group of people walking down a street: Corona Virus. COVID 19 . Massive lines of people lining up outside Centrelink offices around Australia. Seen here the York street office in South Melbourne. Photo by Jason South. 25th March 2020 © Jason SouthCorona Virus. COVID 19 . Massive lines of people lining up outside Centrelink offices around Australia. Seen here the York street office in South Melbourne. Photo by Jason South. 25th March 2020 Thankfully, the already unemployed will also get the virus bonus, but only for as long, its curse persists.

In the days before the virus forced the government's hand, we had the Senate inquiry into Newstart and related payments. Of more than 300 submissions, only one was against any rise in benefits. It came from the government.

The media tended to report on the tragic tales from Newstart and the similarly pitiful Youth Allowance. But it's the petty, depressing grind - the entirely reduced life - that breaks the spirit and puts you down so far into the hole it's hard to imagine ever getting out again. I have been in that hole. I now work a few days a week for Addi Road. Getting a job here helped me climb free. Naturally, I get to see other people who are battling like I was.

Yes, there are those with mental health and addiction issues on benefits. Yes, there are people unlikely to ever find employment, many with serious disabilities. Most people I encounter do want a job - and a little dignity with it. Lately, I see more and more people who make me think of what it was like for me. The "victims" of a relationship bust-up, an illness or an unexpected job loss late in life. People turfed out of their middle-class comfort and free-falling into the underclass. No doubt I'll be seeing more of them, all these coronavirus exiles.

In Australia before coronavirus - BC - 3 million people lived below the poverty line. Most of them had jobs, casual, unreliable and badly paid as they may have been. That statistic is about to get a whole lot bigger, most immediately those banished from a gig economy that no longer exists.

Back at Addi Road, the woman on the Work for the Dole program is directed to the Food Pantry manager. The strain of simply having to tell her story again to another stranger is apparent. The manager understands. He says it's fine to get an early ride home with her friend. He says we can put money on her Opal card so she can be sure of getting back here tomorrow. He also offers her a $20 credit at the Food Pantry so she can take some food home, if she'd like? She would like.

Her face is so flooded by relief and gratitude, I have to turn away from her, to allow her some privacy.

Mark Mordue is a Sydney writer.

25. maaliskuuta 2020 23:40:00 Categories: - info - belgique RTBF Sydney Morning Herald

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