I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone reading this that I am horrified by the proposed budget.
Horrified doesn’t really cover it, actually. I feel quite literally sick to my stomach at the thought of it. It makes me want to cry.
There is so much not to like about it that it’s hard to know where to start, but the part I want to focus on today is the changes to unemployment benefits for people under thirty. The reason I want to focus on these changes is because I don’t see any way that it won’t result in people becoming homeless and possibly starving.
Under the new rules, if you are under thirty and become unemployed, you will receive no benefits whatsoever for six months. During this time, you will be expected, during these six months, to participate in government-funded job search and employment services activities, whatever these are. (I wonder how they expect people to get to these? Neither petrol nor tram tickets are free. Are they going to provide free public transport to job seekers?) After that, you get six months on the pension – which, if you are under 24, will now be substantially lower – during which time you must also work for the dole for 25 hours a week. And if that doesn’t work, you are back to nothing.
The government says that this is about getting young people to ‘earn or learn’. Setting aside the fact that they have just deregulated university fees and de-funded most forms of research that aren’t medical research (and hey, I work in the industry, I’m very happy that medical research didn’t get cut, but I do think there are other areas of research that are just as important), a combination that is likely to raise university fees to unaffordable levels, there are a number of problems with this approach.
First, very few people step straight out of study into a new job. There is almost always some gap in between. What does the government expect people to live on during this time? My guess is that they are assuming that parents will fill the gap. You know, the parents who just got their family tax benefits cut.
The thing is, not everyone has parents who are willing or able to support them. Some people come from families that are very poor. Others come from families that are abusive. Yet others have no family at all for whatever reason. What are they going to fall back on? Couch surfing at friends’ houses? Charities and shelters? These are going to get over-stretched pretty fast. In fact, they already are – I organise the Food for Families Appeal in my workplace every year, and I’ve been hearing for the last two years that the demand has been increasing enormously – while the supply has decreased, as fewer people have money to spare. Where does that leave people?
What about people who moved out of home a few years ago and are in rental accommodation? Most landlords are not going to be impressed if you can’t pay the rent for six months.
What about food? I’ve just spent a week living on $2 a day. I’m actually a pretty good and resourceful cook, and I still struggled to make meals that were satisfying and healthy – and this was despite the fact that I didn’t have to worry about things like fuel costs, utilities, rent or clothing coming out of my $2. And that I had $2, rather than $0.
What about clothing? It’s difficult to job hunt if you don’t have a suit that looks respectable. Which means that you need first to be able to pay for the suit, and second to be able to afford to clean it – either by dry cleaning or at a laundromat or just paying the water and power bills.
What about electronic devices? These may sound like a luxury on the surface, but you try applying for a job without a computer and a printer of some sort. Or without a phone number, for that matter.
What about getting to job interviews?
Or to the doctor, if you decide to do something really extravagant, like get sick?
If you survive six months of absolutely no income, you then get to work for the dole for 25 hours a week. You know, if you wanted to actually help people get work, you could create a work-for-the-dole program that did that – a program that gave people the opportunity to gain skills and make contacts with potential employers. Something that functioned like a traineeship. (Incidentally, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry agrees with me about this, which suggests that this is not just my inner loony lefty talking)
Sadly, that’s not how Work For The Dole functions in Australia. In general, the jobs people on this program do are very low-skill-level jobs for local councils or charities – groups that have no money to employ the staff they need even if they did find someone promising through the work for the dole scheme. And, of course, 25 hours spent on Work For The Dole is 25 hours you can’t spend on actual job hunting or attending interviews (and some Work for the Dole employers can be extremely inflexible about letting people have time off to attend job interviews).
But honestly, even the Work for the Dole bit fades into insignificance before the simple, terrifying idea of paying people nothing at all for six months.
How many people of any age have a six month buffer in case of emergency? And if they do, how many of these six month buffers would survive the fridge breaking down completely and needing to be replaced, or an accident that required money for things like crutches or physiotherapy, or an interest rate hike that increased their mortgage payments?
Seriously, what is the government expecting people to live on? The streets?
Incidentally, this focus on getting people into the workforce seems to forget that the ability to get a job is not solely dependent on the will of the job seeker. A lot fewer of my friends would be unemployed if this were the case! Sadly, however, the employer is the person with the final say over who gets to work, and if the employers don’t want to employ you, then it really doesn’t matter how conscientiously you job hunt. You are not going to become employed without their co-operation.
And, if you are over fifty, or have a chronic illness that might mean you take time off, or are disabled enough to need accommodations but not disabled enough to qualify for disability (and don’t even get me started on that), or are female and of childbearing age, even (it’s astonishing the number of women I know who have been asked about their plans to start families at job interviews. Illegal? Yes. Infrequent? No.), you are probably not going to look like a good investment next to someone who doesn’t have these disadvantages. Sure, it’s discrimination, but there is always a legitimate reason not to hire someone if you don’t want to hire them.
I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. This budget frightens me, because it’s people I love who are going to be affected by it. I hope it would frighten me even if this wasn’t the case.
This isn’t about making a better world for our children and grandchildren – on the contrary, it’s failing our current generation of children. It’s quite literally threatening people with homelessness and starvation. I can’t believe that our government is doing this. I don’t know how to make it better. I don’t even know who to write to.
I do know that I’ll be looking for volunteer opportunities in the near future. I have a feeling that there will be a lot of charities out there who need all the support they can get.
Also, I think I’m going to be inviting a lot more people around for dinner.
(And yeah, a double dissolution looks great right now. Except… what if Australia really meant it the first time?)
PS – Sandra at the $120 Food Challenge blog has more recent and direct experience of this sort of poverty, and has written an excellent article about the budget here. I definitely recommend reading it.