FOUR dollars. It’s the cost of a cup of coffee.
For some of our most disadvantaged, with an empty wallet, bills to pay and two or three days until the next benefits payment, it can be the tipping point.
And yet, until a last-minute turnaround yesterday, the Federal Government was proposing to cut more than $4 a week from the Newstart allowance, which is paid to Australia’s most vulnerable jobseekers.
At just $38 a day, the Newstart allowance equates to 39 per cent of the minimum wage.
The Government proposed cutting the Energy Supplement as part of its $6 billion dollars of saving measures in the so-called omnibus bill.
Scrapping the supplement meant cutting $4 a week for new social security claimants, over time, reducing the incomes of 2.2 million people on the lowest incomes, including pensioners, sole parents, single-income families and Newstart recipients.
In a last-minute reprieve the Coalition and the Labor Opposition worked through a compromise plan to soften the contentious cuts – in particular from Newstart – with an undertaking to find savings elsewhere even if the cuts still come from within the welfare and social services sector.
“I don’t think we should be going after the poorest people in the community to fund savings,” Labor frontbencher Stephen Jones told ABC Radio’s RN.
It took pressure from five of Australia’s biggest charities to force the political change of heart.
St Vincent de Paul Society, Mission Australia, Catholic Social Services, Anglicare and the Salvation Army joined forces to call out the “injustice” if the Turnbull Government and Labor supported the cut.
“We have been lobbying the Government about the inadequacy of Newstart for years …,” Mission Australia chief executive officer Catherine Yeomans said.
“As an organisation that supports the most vulnerable, we know that people on Newstart are already struggling to make ends meet; with exorbitant rents and rising cost of living many of them are already on the verge of homelessness.
“We need a fair and equitable Australia.
“Those on the lowest incomes should not be asked to shoulder the burden of budget repair.”
Families who barely scrape through: Meet the parents who are desperate for the $4 almost cut from the Newstart Allowance
Catholic Social Services Australia chief executive officer Marcelle Mogg said the rate of poverty was growing, with an estimated 2.5 million people or 13.9 per cent of all people living below the internationally accepted poverty line.
“The current level of welfare payments to individuals and families is inadequate and is set and adjusted by the Government based on budgetary priorities rather than being evidenced based,” she said.
St Vincent de Paul Society National Council chief executive Dr John Falzon said it was unconscionable that the government intended cutting unemployment benefits, which were already at razor-thin levels, while at the same time defending generous tax concessions and delivering tax cuts to companies and those on higher incomes.
“You don’t help people into a job by forcing them deeper into poverty,” he said.
“Social security payments are shamefully low, and slashing these payments further will only compound the poverty and desperation of people already living well below the poverty line.”
ACOSS chief executive Dr Cassandra Goldie said: “Four dollars a week doesn’t sound like a lot to some but when you are living below the poverty line it could mean the difference between being able to put food on the table and going without.”
KPMG recently urged the government to raise the dole by $50 a week and the Business Council of Australia has said Newstart “no longer meets a reasonable community standard of adequacy”.
Australia’s Catholic Bishops have welcomed the government’s decision to work with other parties to drop the cuts, but after seeing a possibility of burdening Australia’s vulnerable, would work “to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor”.
President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Denis Hart, said the Catholic Bishops are concerned about growing income inequality in Australia and its impacts on poor and disadvantaged communities.
“Cutting payments to the most vulnerable families and individuals in our community when their payments are already inadequate to meet their living costs, was a very concerning initiative,” Archbishop Hart said.
Bishop Hart said savings needed should not place a heavier burden on society’s most vulnerable.
“Australia is in danger of allowing the economy to become a kind of false god to which even human beings have to be sacrificed,” he said.
By Mark Bowling