When you’re facing desperate situations, when bills are piling up, when your car breaks down, when an appliance stops working and – importantly – your income is leaving you below the poverty line, there’s no other option but to take on consumer debt.
And from there, it can spiral.
This is where payday lenders and rent-to-own companies step in, preying on the vulnerable and thus completing the circle of misery. Replacing that broken fridge instantly with periodic repayments and interest seemed manageable enough at first, but when you’re paying three times the retail price in the long run, it’s a con.
A friend of mine in regional Victoria – a single mother relying on cash-in-hand cleaning jobs – had racked up thousands of dollars in consumer debt. One was to buy a car that ended up breaking down less than a year later. More debt.
Then coronavirus happened.
At first it was overwhelming, but then the government came to her aid, increasing Newstart from $1100 a fortnight to the JobSeeker rate of $1500. Unlike the generalisations and stereotypes thrown at those on welfare, she used the extra money wisely to pay down her debt and start to save.
It has finally become manageable, but there’s a problem. From September 28, the woman – like millions across the country – will become $300 a fortnight poorer. She will be back below the poverty line. Her car has broken down again, too, making it almost impossible to get work.
Those long-term ambitions of studying at TAFE are back on the back burner.
In 2018, I spoke to Ravenswood mother-of-four, Letisha, who had stretched her payments to cover day-to-day living expenses and nothing more. With an inability to save, when it came time to make purchases – whether they were to replace appliances or anything above and beyond the usual spend – she turned to a rent-to-own company.
“I’m unable to save when you started looking at paying bills and all that,” she said about Newstart.
And then there are those trying to find a place to rent in Launceston. The increased rate of JobSeeker has been helpful, but the upcoming rate reduction has effectively ruled a line through the vast majority of available properties. Social support organisations have seen a reduction in people seeking financial counselling during COVID due to the increased rate, but again, this is expected to change come September 28.
Marina Chapman from the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union’s Tasmania branch told me about how the increased rate had benefited her and other job seekers. She was able to get her car fixed – something that, in the past, would have gone straight on the credit card debt. It has greatly increased her employability.
Urging the unemployed to take on piece rate work in the horticulture industry is hardly a solution. The unemployed cannot be categorised as just one cohort of people – there are people with disabilities, people with no access to transport, people with children, and a range of other barriers that mean they can’t just pick up and shift to a rural area with no guarantee of income.
The government has shown how easily it can use its ample levers of power to lift people out of poverty. Why not use the pandemic to give people the opportunity to address the issues in their lives, obtain the skills and training they want and need and, when jobs become available again, emerge from COVID stronger together?
Or we could listen to Social Services Minister Anne Ruston, who last year said lifting the rate of Newstart would “give drug dealers more money and give pubs more money”. This offensive lack of insight was how Australia learned to accept impoverishing the disadvantaged. We need to do better. Bass Liberal MHR Bridget Archer has done her best to gain insight into the real world of disadvantaged, and is a lone voice in her party arguing for humane policies on welfare and unemployment.
For a political party that claims to be strong economic managers, cutting JobSeeker doesn’t even make economic sense. Deloitte Access Economics – hardly a politically radical institution – found the cut would reduce the size of the economy by $31.3 billion and cost 145,000 equivalent full-time jobs over two years.
Regional areas, particularly Tasmania, would feel this the hardest.
We can’t let the cycle of poverty start up once again.
- Adam Holmes is an Examiner journalist