On 1 May, the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker, The Australian Catholic Social Justice Council released a statement urging a review on the welfare system. Payments have not been updated in terms of real buying power since 1994 despite rises in rent, food and bills. The statement is timely especially in regards to the 2018 Federal Budget causing public discontent.
“Wages have stagnated since 2012 [and] families are feeling the pinch. But the most vulnerable- including the working poor- are finding it virtually impossible to make ends meet.”
Said Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen of Parramatta as the ACSJC statement was released.
In light of this social issue is the recent controversy caused by Federal MP Julia Banks stating on ABC Radio that she could live on the $40 a day welfare that many Australians subsist on. For many, welfare is not a choice and what often is not taken into account is $40 being a gross figure. If day-to-say costs are brought to light, the net sum is insufficient.
The Catholic Weekly interviewed Australian students- many of whom rely on welfare in the form of Student Allowance. For 20-year-old Cecilia Streckfuss, who attends a Catholic tertiary institute, university is a hand-to-mouth existence. Three years ago, Cecilia moved from her hometown, Ballarat, to pursue an education in Sydney unavailable in regional Australia. According to Centrelink, the average amount given to students living away from home is a fortnightly stipend amounting to a weekly sum of $222.90. For Cecilia’s basic living expenses this in insufficient:
“For me, it is $275 a week in Sydney for rent. And I share a house. Weekly food costs $130. Just from these expenses alone, I am already put into -$182 of weekly deficit if I was relying solely on my Student Allowance.”
To alleviate this predicament, Cecilia works two casual jobs:
“I work two jobs between my classes; an assistant librarian with nightshifts and as a swim instructor on the weekends. The money earned from my jobs gets $200 a week. But when put into the deficit I only have $18 a week spending. Aside from food and rent, I have to buy and things like toothpaste, shower products and hygiene. I also need to drive to work. Fuel costs money too and sometimes I run out of money for these things and have to borrow from friends. I’m not a smoker or a drinker or any of that. I am frugal, but I am still struggling”
Other students interviewed told The Catholic Weekly that they were in similar situations. Some were fortunate enough to rely on financial supplementation from family. But this privilege could not be guaranteed . Cecilia hinted that she was not the only one:
“Four days a week I attend class. While weekly contact hours are about 12 hours total, these hours are splayed at times- especially in the afternoon- that prevent me from doing anything else. I struggle to purchase books for my course so I resort to going to the library. But often books are borrowed by students in a similar situation”
Ironically, the strain on the health system brought by the paltry amount in welfare may perhaps be a larger cost for public expenditure. Cecilia told The Weekly her personal grievances:
“This financial burden has increased my anxiety. I see a therapist to help me cope. It certainly distracts me from my studies- having this worry in the back of my mind; the worry that I won’t be able to afford next month’s rent. it affects many things- my sleep, my behaviour, my academic performance. This is not me. This is me under pressure… Thankfully, my access to therapy is bulk-billed but if it was not the case, things would be very bad”
In our service based economy where skills and qualifications matter, it is imperative to help all Australians –especially disadvantaged youth- be given the best opportunity for education without unnecessary burden. Cecilia maintains good grades and hopes to contribute to society with her qualifications:
“I want to give back to society once I enter the workforce. But it is difficult at the moment to cope day-by-day. I would study better if I didn’t have this trouble.”
An OECD Report in 2015 concluded that when income inequality rises, economic growth falls. Indeed, Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Services, remarked back in 2013 that:
“Increasing the abysmally low base rate of allowance payments by $50 a week is the single most important thing a government could do”
Unfortunately, there have been no legislated changes to Newstart or Student Allowance rates in over 23 years. Until then, It seems that the system designed to support struggling Australians has devolved into a token gesture. Bishop Long concluded in the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council statement:
“The common good will not be served unless we ensure the greatest support to those most in need.”