Jesuit Social Services’ recently released Federal Election platform, A blueprint for a just recovery, builds on 45 years of advocacy and action, to outline the organisation’s vision for a just society across a range of interconnected social policy areas, from climate change to Aboriginal self-determination, youth justice, mental health and affordable housing. In this first in a series of pre-Election blogs, we focus on Australia’s social safety net.

In an economic downturn triggered by a public health crisis that has multiplied challenges for many, Governments must focus on how to best support people in need. Government responses to the pandemic, including temporary improvements to the social safety net, have proven that while issues of disadvantage are complex, they are not beyond resolution. We have also seen the severe impact of crises – bushfires, pandemic, floods and war – on the cost of living in Australia. In response to this, the Government must seek, to the fullest extent possible, not to compound existing disadvantage or create additional disadvantage. We call for a fair system of social and employment support that empowers people to reach their full potential.

No one should be forced to choose between food and medicine

The Government introduced the Coronavirus Supplement in April 2020 to soften the economic blow caused by COVID-19 lockdowns, adding $275 a week to JobSeeker and a number of other payments.

The impact of the temporary increase to JobSeeker through the Coronavirus Supplement was profound. Some of our participants were able to access rental accommodation, to afford medication or purchase items as simple, but essential, as warm clothes. Anecdotal evidence from our programs revealed positive changes Some participants achieved a measure of stability in their lives that they hadn’t previously enjoyed. Crucially, our participants had hope. Their outlook changed.

Emma* is one of the many Australians whose wellbeing improved with access to a fair social safety net. She is 24 years old and previously worked full-time on a minimum wage for two years, before starting diploma study and accessing Youth Allowance. Emma left home at 17 years of age, and does not have the support of her parents and must pay for everything herself, including rent in shared accommodation.

In a recent session with her Jesuit Social Services worker, Emma disclosed that when her Centrelink payment increased due to the Coronavirus Supplement, she was able to replace her underwear and buy a proper winter jacket – something she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford. The increased payment also meant she did not have to decide between buying groceries or the medication she is on for depression and anxiety.

Government must raise JobSeeker to keep people out of poverty

The reality is that people relying on low levels of government income support are living in poverty. The experiences of Emma and many other disadvantaged Australians are in line with findings that the Coronavirus Supplement lifted many people out of poverty. Among people in households on the JobSeeker Payment, poverty fell by four-fifths, from 76 per cent in 2019 to 15 per cent in June 2020. Concerningly, research from ACOSS and UNSW shows that once the income supports in place were withdrawn during early 2021, income inequality and poverty increased above pre-pandemic levels.

Despite ongoing calls from the community sector to make a substantial increase to JobSeeker, the Government removed the Coronavirus Supplement in March 2021, and made the disappointing decision to raise the JobSeeker, Parenting Payment, Youth Allowance and Austudy payments by only $50 per fortnight. This decision has seen recipients once again living below the poverty line and struggling to pay for essentials such as food, rent, medicine and internet access. During COVID-19 lockdowns, many of our participants struggled to afford internet access which in turn impacted their ability to provide home schooling, access essential telehealth, partake in job interviews, or to access goods and services online. With ongoing economic uncertainty and a highly competitive job market, the importance of a fair social safety net is only magnified.

Jesuit Social Services supports ACOSS’ Raise the Rate For Good campaign to increase the base rate of JobSeeker and related payments from $44 per day to at least $69, and to establish a social security commission to advise Parliament on the ongoing adequacy of future income support payments from a social justice perspective. In addition, we call on the Government to extend eligibility for JobSeeker, Youth Allowance and related payments to people on bridging visas and other temporary visa holders.

Our social safety net should support people to live in dignity

Barriers to receiving income support, such as onerous mutual obligation and income management measures, including the cashless debit card scheme, should be removed. In the Submission on the ‘Continuation of Cashless Welfare Bill 2020’, we reiterated concerns that the cashless debit card disproportionately impacts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, did not involve adequate consultation with affected communities, and is not supported by evidence. In fact, there is a growing body of research raising significant issues with the scheme’s efficacy and its harmful impact on already disadvantaged communities.

We believe these measures, implemented on a blanket basis in areas with high levels of social and economic disadvantage, only further disempower, demoralise and stigmatise people who are vulnerable. They also fail to address the real and pressing issues many communities, including rural or remote communities, are facing: high levels of unemployment, poverty, lack of safe and affordable housing, and food insecurity, to name a few.

Forms of income management should be opt-in or voluntary, developed by communities and linked to other services as part of a holistic approach to supporting people in need. People must be supported to live in dignity while they look to study, enter or re-enter the workforce.

Jesuit Social Services’ social safety net recommendations:
  • Increase the base rate of JobSeeker and related payments to at least $69 per day, as outlined by ACOSS in its Raise the Rate For Good campaign
  • Commit to ongoing indexation of payments and fund the establishment of a Social Security Commission to advise Parliament on the ongoing adequacy of income support payments
  • Extend eligibility for JobSeeker, Youth Allowance and related payments to people on bridging visas and other temporary visa holders
  • End compulsory trials of the cashless debit card scheme and compulsory income management.

* All participant names are changed to protect privacy – Emma isn’t her real name.

Read our Federal Election Platform

This blog draws on our Federal election recommendations for a fair social safety net. Our full Federal Election Platform, A blueprint for a just recovery, lays out our recommendations under twelve areas.