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May 7, 2013

What life is like on Newstart: ‘every day is a worry’

What's life like living on Newstart unemployment benefits? Crikey talks to a jobseeker, a single mum and a graduate about how they live on just $497 a fortnight.

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.”

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22 comments

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22 thoughts on “What life is like on Newstart: ‘every day is a worry’

  1. Mr Tank

    Now go and interview that unemployed guy in a boarding house living amongst the filth, the mental illnesses and the exploitation. Get him to tell you you about the joys of the soup line and the abuse that lead him to that place. Ask him about the fraud that is the Job Network System. No? Well it is safer to interview a couple of student mates and a solo mum after all. Not that anyones mind is changed by this kind of reporting. Those without compassion only learn it when it is they that suffer.

  2. leone

    This article is misleading. Single parents on Newstart do not receive $497 a fortnight, they get quite a bit more. Lety’s look at what Wendy is entitled to. Her base Newstart payment, as a single person with one child, is $537.80 per fortnight. Wendy gets the maximum amount of rent assistance – $144.06 per fortnight. If she had continued her studies she would be eligible for the Pensioner Education Supplement of $62.40 per fortnight and the Annual Education Entry payment of $208. So why does she say she can no longer afford to finish her course? Wendy makes no mention of Family Tax Benefit payments or of any child support she might receive. Not does she mention that she still has her Pensioner Concession card with all the benefits attached.

    I know it’s tough existing on a benefit, I’ve been there done that. But I’m sick and tired of all these stories about single mums who cannot afford to study any more because that nasty government has put them onto Newstart. Lets look at some cold, hard facts.

    To have been recently transferred to Newstart Wendy would have been among those Howard ‘grand-fathered’ back in 2006 because they already had a child and were on Parenting Payment. So Wendy has been on welfare for quite a few years, more than enough time to complete her studies and find work. What stopped her doing this?

  3. Mike Smith

    And if you’re studying, look for a course that has a lot of demand at the end. I’m doubting that screenwriting has. Yes, the courses with demand *are* significantly harder.

  4. michael crook

    Leone, that still doesn’t pay the rent.

    No, let us stop kicking shit out of those on the bottom rung of the ladder and start getting some tax out of the top of ladder, but no, they are too smart for the taxman.

    Can we please, give everyone some kind of dignity without having to behave supplicants in this, the “best of all” countries.

  5. Saugoof

    We’ve really become a much meaner society in the last few decades. When I was younger people generally used to view unemployment benefits as “It’s a good system. Let’s keep it that way, someday I could have to rely on it“. Now we see it as “nothing but dole bludgers” and “drain on the budget” and other excuses that we make so we can feel better about being greedy.

  6. Tim nash

    I very much agree with Saugoot.

    But I think we should be aware that this kind of ‘bludger’ mentality is hardwired into many Australians.

    The older boomer generation, have been exceptionally lucky with their property doubling Many of them are not that educated and come from times when jobs where pretty easy to find, their careers are nearly over now and they escaped pretty much their whole life unscathed. Part of the problem is that these people cannot see that they are rich. It seems Australians will never ever admit they are wealthy unless they are so filthy rich it is unavoidable. This is what I mean by the bludger mentality being built into the Australian.

  7. Yclept

    It’s good to see that Joe wants to get rid of the corporate welfare that is a drain on all of us. That is what he said, isn’t it…

  8. Hamis Hill

    After subsidised rent is taken out of their payment, job seekers on ten dollars a day are really in a form of suspended animation.
    They hardly form a viable “pool of unemployed” competing for employment and therefore keeping a lid on so-called “wage inflation” where employers are forced to bid for scarce labour.
    Hence the call from some sections of business for an increase in “dole” payments.

  9. peter willis

    Just wait till the libs get in .They will look after everyone. I am so pleased.

  10. Arlen

    “Jobseeker” is an arts graduate and says “they are basically telling you to apply for jobs that you’re overqualified for”. Now I’m all for well-rounded citizens and learning for learning’s sake but it’s either delusion on the part of students or misinformation on the part of universities to believe that an arts degree makes you overqualified for anything. I get the impression from her comments that she feels entitled to a comfortable, well payed job, despite the harsh reality that an arts degree teaches you no particular skill that is demanded by employers. All the brochure slogans about “learning how to think” are nothing more than marketing. I study arts topics in my spare time (books are great for this) but at uni stick to the STEM subjects or the professions if you want the right to feel overqualified.