Scott Morrison’s belated extension of lockdown payments to those on welfare is a welcome move but “abandons” those who need help most, social advocates say.
They warn countless thousands have lost income and are also now unable to hunt for jobs.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions is demanding the JobSeeker rate be doubled, to $600 a week, for all recipients.
“For all its talk of us all being in this together, the government is dividing communities by providing financial support to some and leaving others who have the least behind them facing destitution on $44 a day,” said Cassandra Goldie, Australian Council of Social Service CEO.
“This is a serious public health emergency – you can’t stay at home if you can’t afford to keep a roof over your head,” Dr Goldie said.
She claimed some 350,000 people in Greater Sydney alone would be excluded from the new payment – mostly women and families.
Welfare recipients finally included
A new $200 weekly payment for those on JobSeeker, Youth Allowance and other income support payments will be extended to people in Greater Sydney who lose more than eight hours of work, as the New South Wales lockdown drags on for another month.
Previously, anyone getting Centrelink allowances such as JobSeeker or Youth Allowance were specifically excluded from the disaster payment, even if they had lost significant hours at work.
They will be able to apply to Services Australia for the extra $200 from Tuesday, August 3.
It was announced on Wednesday as Mr Morrison detailed yet another increase to COVID disaster payments, with the maximum amount for someone who’d lost more than 20 hours of work rising from $600 to $750 a week.
That puts the new payment equal with the original JobKeeper wage subsidy rate, of $1500 a fortnight.
But unlike 2020, when welfare recipients received a $550 per fortnight ‘COVID supplement’ to their existing payment, those on income support will only get $400 a fortnight extra, and it will only be extended to those who have lost eight hours of work.
Lockdown challenges for those on welfare
For those who have lost less than eight hours work, or who weren’t in work at the time of the lockdown’s beginning, there is nothing on top of their existing welfare payment.
That’s a big problem, said Kristin O’Connell of the Antipoverty Centre, for people already struggling to make ends meet, as lockdown presents unique and potentially “devastating” challenges.
“Lockdown means life is more expensive. Cheap goods disappear off shelves. We are trapped in our houses, so electricity costs go up a lot, because it’s winter and it’s cold. There’s a need to get things delivered if you have a health vulnerability and can’t go shopping,” Ms O’Connell told The New Daily.
“It’s impossible to live on JobSeeker on its current rate, and with a pandemic on top, it’s punishing people for things beyond their control.”
Ms O’Connell described the $200 weekly top-up as the government “only giving an inch”, and that even people who had not lost any hours at work were still being hit by lockdown costs.
She said that, while stuck at home in Sydney’s lockdown, her electricity bill had doubled in the past month, due to being in the house more and needing to occasionally use heating in the “freezing” weather.
She also noted basic food staples, like tinned food and pasta, were being snapped up at supermarkets by others also trudging through lockdown.
That might mean the cheaper food options, which unemployed and underemployed people rely on while managing very tight budgets, may not be available.
“People might be paying double for the basics,” Ms O’Connell said.
“Even if you’re talking about pasta or a can of chickpeas, paying $2 instead of $1 is a big problem, when you’re managing your food to that degree.”
Calls for JobSeeker doubling
Labor leader Anthony Albanese told Sky News “any additional support is certainly welcome” but noted “this is the fourth iteration of government support, it’s changed every few days”.
ACTU president Michele O’Neil said more assistance was needed, claiming there was nothing for those who had lost their jobs or hours before the lockdown began.
“The JobSeeker payment should be increased to $600 per week for anyone who is eligible, instead of just those who’ve lost more than eight hours of work per week,” she said.
Greens senator Rachel Siewert said the $200 boost was “a step in the right direction” but not enough.
“It’s very simple: To ensure people stay safe, the government must ensure everyone can afford to stay home during lockdowns,” Senator Siewert said.