Yesterday shadow treasurer Joe Hockey declared he would implement a “culture of self-reliance” to encourage Australians to get off welfare if the Coalition is elected come September. Just last week a number of prominent Australians — including World Vision Australia CEO Tim Costello, Julian Burnside QC and social commentator Eva Cox — called on the government to increase Newstart payments by $50 a week in the May federal budget. So what is life like for those dependent on welfare in Australia? Crikey spoke to a variety of Australians receiving Newstart …

The jobseeker:

“There’s so many different circumstances you can be in to get Newstart. Not a lot of people recognise that,” said Hannah Joyner, a 25-year-old with a bachelor of arts degree and a graduate diploma. After graduating in 2010, she worked as an archivist on a fixed-term contract for a year and a half before her job ended unexpectedly.

Although she had some savings, she was without work and entirely reliant on Newstart — $497 fortnightly for a single person — for seven months. “It was so dismal, it was a bad situation,” said Joyner. “I am only just starting to get out of the situation now.”

Joyner says it was confronting to find herself unemployed. “There’s a lot of anxiety and depression and upset that comes [from losing your job], and it makes it much harder to find work again,” she told Crikey. “As part of getting Newstart, you have to go to a job service provider and they are basically telling you to apply for jobs that you’re overqualified for. They don’t understand why you’re not looking just looking for a job at Subway. I found a lot of it very demeaning and very patronising.”

In the last two months she’s found casual work at a government department. Before then she applied for 10 jobs every fortnight, as per the Newstart demands, and secured one job interview. “Every job is suddenly a casual job, a six-month contract. There’s nothing guaranteed, there’s nothing permanent,” said Joyner. “Even to get off Newstart, there’s no guarantee you won’t be on it again in three months.”

Joyner has credit card debt and is aware that the hours at her casual job are likely to soon go down. She’s also entirely reliant on her own finances. “Worst case scenario I wouldn’t be homeless, but if I was, say, going to need emergency dental care, there is nobody who would be able to pay that. I’m at the point now where I just feel like the stress of all of it has given me so adrenaline, I’m ready for anything. I’m actually grateful for insight for how a lot of people live, I’m grateful for the experience. For the rest of my life, I will be safe with money.”

The graduate:

It’s now standard practice that many graduates go straight onto Newstart once they finish their degrees, and that’s where 24-year-old Kelly Williamson found herself after completing her bachelor of arts degree in screenwriting. She spent eight full months on Newstart, before finding casual work in hospital administration.

While on Newstart, Williamson applied for around 230 jobs in arts, administration and health. “If you really want to, you can put in any old application anywhere, but I used to try really hard, and that was basically my week: applying for jobs,” she told Crikey. “I had three interviews and a lot of rejections.”

“I don’t understand how you could live off Newstart, really.”

Williamson was sent along to Serena Russo, a recruiter that Centrelink works with to help the long-term unemployed. At the beginning, Williamson was classified as stream 1, a highly employable person who was expected to have a job within 12 weeks. When she didn’t, she was reclassified as stream 3, which indicates candidates with longer-term issues (Serena Russo receives more funding for stream 3 candidates), and was quizzed about her presentation and mental health. That was a demoralising moment, said Williamson: “I have a degree. I don’t have presentation issues. They said I was highly employable … You don’t leave that place feeling good, you feel like you’re unemployable and there forever.”

A month ago she landed a full-time job at her university in administration. “I’m living at home, it makes a big difference to how much money I have, but I’m living off my parents. I don’t understand how you could live off Newstart, really,” she told Crikey.

The single mother:

As an accountant who works part time while studying for a certificate IV in accounting and has a 10-year-old daughter, Wendy Tucker is the poster child of single mothers the government wants to encourage. Yet the Gillard government’s decision to shift working parents off the higher Parenting Payment and on to the Newstart Allowance as of January 1 this year means that Tucker is down $170 a fortnight from last year.

She’s currently contracted to pay $350 a week rent for a unit above a shop in Sydney. “There’s no way you can rent a house sharing a house with other people when you have a child … I could move to the central coast and pay $220, but you can’t get work.”

Tucker says if she were just able to finish her studies, she’d be off Newstart within six months. Instead, because of the emotional and financial stress, Tucker has hit pause on her studies for a few months and is concentrating on getting extra work with tax season approaching.

“I’ve got so many things breaking down around the place, but I can’t afford him to put the rent up. When it rains I can’t open the front door, and my daughter has to climb through the window. I’ve got credit card debt, no one is going to consolidate my debt,” she said.

She quizzed Employment Minister Bill Shorten on ABC’s Q&A about the changes to Newstart for single parents and has been vocal in talking with the media, writing to politicians and requesting interviews with them to protest about the payment changes. “The majority of these women are taking children away from very difficult situations,” noted Tucker.

Now Tucker has become reliant on the generosity of others. A friend helped out with dance class fees for her daughter, someone else anonymously paid for her daughter’s school camp, and Tucker received work clothes from the charity Dressed for Success. “I am so lucky, and I don’t want to complain out loud,” she told Crikey.

“Every day is a worry, every week is a worry … I just know that I don’t want to be on this forever. This is why I’m studying.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey