My week on Newstart has been an eye opener (and I already knew quite a bit), not just the big things, but for all the small things that we otherwise take for granted, like a cup of coffee. For me it was only a single week. For many of the 500,000 Australians on Newstart, this is their daily experience. I'd like to think that it is only a brief experience for most, but the fact is over 60% of the people on Newstart have been there for a year, not out of choice, but because they are desperate for work but don't fit neatly back into the workforce.
Living on Newstart for just a week has already given me a taste of what many people experience month after month, when living $130 under the poverty line. I met single mums, older workers who have been retrenched, young men and women, people living with a partial disability or with mental illness, migrants struggling with language. Not one of them said to me that Newstart is what they want for their lives, or for their family. Many recounted the difficulties they had faced in finding an employer who would take them on because of their unique circumstances.
I don't believe it is OK to condemn these people to poverty, to a feeling of shame and to social isolation; to punish them while they search for a 'new start' for themselves rather than give them practical assistance to seek out work. One man told me that despite knowing he cannot read and write in english, his JSA sat him in front of a computer and left him to fill in the forms he needed to provide before he could get further help. Years of both old parties stirring up fear about welfare cheats and dismantling our social support system has left ordinary Australians with a safety net so low, it barely functions at all.
I've learnt many things this week, and benefited immensely from all the tips sent in and suggestions from service providers. To wrap up my week, I want to share some of the lessons learnt.
The biggest lesson of all: A $50 a week increase to the single rate of Government allowances like Newstart, would make a lot of difference to so many people and increase their probability of getting back into work, by helping to ensure they are in good physical and mental health with secure housing and regular meals, have decent clothes, transport and a phone to seek out work and that their confidence remains intact.