Welfare recipients struggle with cost of living as lockdowns drag on

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Stefan Postles/EPA</span>
Photograph: Stefan Postles/EPA

Welfare recipients under stay-at-home orders and barred from additional Covid support – in total more than 80% of those on working-age Centrelink payments – say they are struggling with the extra costs of living under lockdown.

As part of a push to offer extra income support to the more than 800,000 people currently left out, the Australian Council of Social Service (Acoss) surveyed welfare recipients currently living under stay-at-home orders in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.

Of the 216 people surveyed, almost all respondents (96%) said they were struggling with the cost of living and 41.5% said they were at risk of homelessness because of the high cost of housing.

Last year all people on jobseeker, students and parenting payments received a coronavirus supplement – beginning at $550 a fortnight.

Related: Experts urge higher income support payments to stem youth mental health crisis

“There was that feeling of unity through all of that, ‘We’re all in this together’,” said mature-age student recipient Donna Bennett, 50, of the situation last year.

“I wish I could have that lightness about me [now].”

Now only those who can show they have lost at least eight hours of work can access a $200-a-week top-up “disaster payment”.

Government data shows 152,000 people receiving income support payments had gained access to the disaster payment, meaning about 800,000 people or 84% had been left out of extra assistance, Acoss said.

It argues this is unfair given welfare recipients are unable to get paid work due to the lockdowns, now in their 12th week in hardest-hit Sydney.

Data also shows more men receive the Covid disaster payment (19% in greater Sydney) than women (12% in the same region), with men making up two-thirds of the disaster payment recipients.

Bennett, who lives in Warrandyte, on Melbourne’s north-eastern fringe, receives $512.50 a fortnight from Austudy while completing a diploma of community services.

Her children have moved out so she does not receive family tax benefit, though she recently received a $400 debt for family payments she received last year. It was garnisheed from her tax return.

The government’s Covid-specific income support payments this year have been directly focused on supplementing the income of people who have lost work.

But some welfare recipients excluded from support told the survey they were dealing with higher costs due to staying home, such as increased electricity bills, and taking taxis to avoid public transport and grocery deliveries.

Some survey respondents told the Acoss survey they were already homeless or couch-surfing at a friend’s house, while others talked about moving into a caravan to save money, or receiving eviction notices for arrears despite eviction moratoriums.

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Bennett spends most of her time down during lockdown at a local op-shop and emergency relief centre run by the Rotary on the main street of Warrandyte.

“I try to spend my weekends down there because it saves me power and energy and water and stuff back here,” she said.

Though she has volunteered with the food pantry for the past two years, this year she has also started relying on it for herself.

“I don’t take much,” she said. “I try to take enough just for my dinner and then bring it back home each day.”

A former entertainment and hospitality worker, Bennett decided to retrain once her children moved out, inspired by the work of the Victorian government’s royal commission into family violence.

She said she had unsuccessfully applied for about 50 jobs since June, and now felt she was in limbo.

“Now I’m thinking, do I settle for any old job?” she said. “My job search is broadening and broadening and broadening. It seems there’s a lot of people applying for jobs.”

Complicating this, however, was the fact it was near impossible to find work during a lockdown.

Related: Daughter’s anger as late mother hit with decade-old $1,600 welfare bill, but jobkeeper companies keep cash

The Acoss chief executive, Cassandra Goldie, said the OECD had recently called on the Australian government to lift jobseeker benefits, which are paid at a base rate of $44 a day.

“It is unconscionable to leave behind people who most need support,” she said.

Goldie said the government should allow all welfare recipients to access disaster payments, including people on temporary visas, before increasing payments to above the poverty line.

“It’s that terrible conscious feeling that everything you do is costing money,” Bennett said. “That’s why I spend a lot of time at the op-shop. That $200 extra, that anxiousness would go.

“There’s this weight that I carry with me now.”

A spokeswoman for the social services minister, Anne Ruston, said this month that the government had “provided $32bn in emergency support payments” and made the biggest boost to unemployment since 1986.

“Covid-19 disaster payments are paid in respect hours lost as a result of lockdowns,” the spokeswoman said. “Income support recipients are not being excluded and are eligible for a $200 per week where they have lost work.”

• This article was amended on 20 September 2021 to remove details of Bennett’s circumstances, pending further information

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