While we’ve been hearing from a wide range of voices that “we’re all in this together”, disparaging comments about people unable to find paid work weaken the national sense of togetherness that’s been getting us through this crisis. Branding people with old demonising stereotypes needs to end. We need to consign the term “dole” and its nasty derivatives to pre-Covid history. As we saw the queues outside Centrelink, the country woke up to the fact that jobseeker and social security is a lifeline for all of us.
For too long people without paid work have had to put up with insulting and incorrect stereotypes, right when they’re trying to rustle up every ounce of self-confidence they can to keep applying for jobs, knockback after knockback. Even before the coronavirus crisis there was not enough paid work for everyone who needed a job or more hours. We had rising unemployment and underemployment, yet people were expected to apply for up to 20 jobs a month while struggling on just $40 a day to cover rent, food, bills, transport, healthcare. It was impossible.
Now, due to Covid-19, we have had the largest fall in jobs since the Great Depression. We’ve just seen 6,000 jobs lost at Qantas and thousands more in retail, including at Woolworths and Target. There is now only one job vacancy available for every 13 people on jobseeker or youth allowance. Thankfully, the government has done the right thing in doubling the rate of jobseeker and youth allowance. This was a huge relief. We’ve heard from many people who used to be on the old, low rate of Newstart that the increase to jobseeker has meant they’ve finally been able to access the essentials, pay rent on time, buy fresh fruit and vegetables, get prescription glasses, a fridge and warm jumpers for their children to get through winter.
While people are relieved that for now they can cover the basics, they’re also deeply worried about the future, with dramatic job losses, likely further increases to unemployment once jobkeeper is removed, and the terrible “cliff” of September looming. Without further decisions before September, jobseeker is set to revert to the brutal $40 a day, and eviction moratoriums will end. Economists and business leaders are in clear agreement that it’s going to take much longer for our economy and job market to rebuild. It’s expected that 1.7 million people will need the jobseeker payment in September. It would be unthinkable for the government to turn back to the old, unliveable rate of Newstart. It’s clear to business, unions and the community that we need a permanent increase to jobseeker to a decent level that will allow people to cover the basics so they can rebuild their lives.
Reports at the weekend that the government was considering a $10-a-day increase on the old rate were met with deep concern from people struggling to find employment, economists and business leaders alike. Not only does the increase need to be permanent, it needs to be adequate. Ten dollars a day extra is clearly not enough for people to keep a roof over their head and food on the table. It amounts to a $200-a-week cut in income on the current rate of jobseeker.
People relying on these payments can’t afford this and nor can their communities. The increase in jobseeker in April was the single most effective economic stimulus measure so far. Almost every dollar went straight into spending on essentials in local stores, and more was spent in regions hardest hit by unemployment. Come September, if the $275-a-week increase in jobseeker payments is clawed back by $200 a week at the same time that jobkeeper payments and the moratoriums on rents and household debts are phased out, unemployment and poverty will surge again.
A permanent, adequate increase that allows people to cover the basics is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do. The government needs to give people and businesses certainty. It needs to let people know it has their backs.
Job creation and job readiness are also key to our recovery. We can, for example, create thousands of jobs and reduce homelessness through a public infrastructure program to build social housing, working to fill our shortfall of 400,000 affordable homes. Direct public investment in social housing is estimated to boost GDP by $1.30 for every dollar invested.
We can create even more jobs, cut energy bills and tackle climate change by installing solar and improving energy efficiency in homes of people on low incomes who could otherwise not afford such an upgrade. Investment in energy efficiency and solar would quickly create thousands of jobs (in training, auditing, installation, manufacturing, retail) quickly. Again, there is already broad support.
People will need more help than they get now from employment services to take advantage of new jobs when they’re created. The lesson from past recessions is that many people become unemployed long term and are then locked out of employment. Even before Covid there were more than half a million people on jobseeker payments for more than a year, many of them older workers and people with disabilities. Over the next two years, they are set to be joined by hundreds of thousands of younger people who had the misfortune to leave education in a recession, and hundreds of thousands more who will lose their jobs as the jobkeeker wage subsidies are phased out.
Many jobs won’t be the same after the pandemic. Many people will need career guidance and training, and employers will need people with new skills. Those unemployed long term will need a guarantee of properly paid work experience, training or other help to overcome obstacles to employment. Just sending people out into the labour market under threat of the loss of income support won’t work. Many have already been searching for more than a year without result.
Fixing social security so that everyone has enough to cover the basics for the long haul is a first-order priority for all of us if people are to have hope and confidence for the future. We’ve come a long way together since the start of this crisis. We know that working positively together has been the key to our relative success here in Australia. Let’s not fall back into old divisive ways that will only take us backwards, hurting those with the least the most.
• Cassandra Goldie is the chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Service