Jobseekers deserve better

This opinion piece was also published in the Newcastle Herald newspaper. Click to read.

In December last year, there were more than 18,000 people in the Hunter region receiving Newstart.

Newstart is designed to support people in our community who aren’t in employment but are searching for work. You may know someone who has been on the payment at some point – a neighbour, friend, relative, or even yourself.

Heidi lives in Lake Macquarie, she’s in her late 40s, has had a job since she was 15 and is a single mother.

Heidi prides herself on always ensuring the first thing she does when her pay check comes in is to pay her rent. For the last several years, Heidi has been on contract work due to lack of options in the region. When Heidi was in between contracts, applying for dozens of jobs a week, she earnt the Newstart payment.

Through our network of services in the region, Samaritans supports many people earning Newstart, particularly with food packages and vouchers to pay utility bills.

The common thread running through all of the conversations we have with people who come to see us, is that Newstart is simply not enough to cover the basics.

While the cost of housing, electricity, food and transport continues to rise, Newstart has not been increased in real terms since 1994. This means that while wages have grown to accommodate for increases in the cost of living, Newstart has stagnated for 25 years.

Recent research from the Australian National University found that after housing costs, households whose main income were government allowances such as Newstart were $124 a week below the poverty line in 2017, compared with $98 in 2009, $55 in 2003 and $25 in 1993.

The payment is so low, sometimes it doesn’t cover the cost of rent. Heidi’s Newstart payment was $340 per week. Her rent was $380 per week.

“I couldn’t live on Newstart. Over my working life I had nice things in my house; nice furniture, nice corporate clothes and handbags – I’ve sold them to survive. It’s been so hard for so long. You wouldn’t wish it on anyone”, said Heidi.

While Newstart is said to be a safety net for those in between jobs, it can also be a trap. If a person earning Newstart can’t pay their rent, what about the cost of fuel or public transport to get to job interviews? And what happens when the kids get sick? Everything in the chemist is automatically outside the budget.

Heidi told us, “I was applying for so many jobs but not hearing back. You spend hours on an application, submit it online then don’t hear anything. It’s really disheartening. There’s been so many nights I’ve just cried and cried”.

Samaritans meets people in Heidi’s situation every single day. When the same story of struggle is being told by so many people, it becomes evident is that this is not personal failure; it is the failure of the system to support people most in need.

“I saw John at Samaritans with my bills to see if he could help. I told him ‘If I wasn’t this desperate, I wouldn’t come see you. I’m so grateful for your help. If it wasn’t for you, I’d be on the streets’”, said Heidi.

So, what’s the solution?

There is a widely-supported national campaign called Raise The Rate which is calling on the Morrison Government to raise the rate of Newstart by $75 a week.

This call has been echoed by people including the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia and Business Council of Australia Chief Executive, Jennifer Westacott.

In September, Samaritans made a submission to the Senate inquiry into the adequacy of Newstart and other related payments (such as Youth Allowance).

Through our submission we were able to share some of Heidi’s story, as well as comments and experiences from many other people in her situation from towns across the Hunter.

As an agency that values the intrinsic human rights of all people, Samaritans has attempted to bring a human face to the public discussion on Newstart so that we can focus on our common humanity.

Any person can find themselves out of work at any time. Unfortunately, when the work dries up and the job hunt begins, the current system isn’t supporting people to find another job. It’s trapping them in poverty and financial stress.

It’s time to #RaiseTheRate.

Brad Webb is CEO of Samaritans, a Newcastle-based non-profit organisation operating services across many areas of the social sector.