Poverty

[Private Members Statement, 24 September 2020, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament] 

Australia's first recession in almost three decades and worst economic downturn since the Great Depression will force more people into poverty and erode conditions for those who are already doing it tough. The fallout of the massive economic contraction has so far been cushioned by income support, including the JobSeeker coronavirus supplement, JobKeeper, eviction moratoriums, rent reductions and mortgage loan deferrals. But those vital lifelines are being wound back. Without adequate intervention, thousands of people will suffer and New South Wales will become a place of deep inequality. People on JobSeeker are among the poorest in our community, with eligibility tests excluding all but those with the most meagre means. The social services sector has argued for years that the JobSeeker rate of about $40 a day is grossly inadequate to live on. It has not kept pace with rising rents or other costs of living, forcing many to go without basic needs like food and heating.

Before the pandemic, around 700,000 people were on JobSeeker; that number has now more than doubled to 1.5 million. Australia's economy could not have worn that level of poverty, which led the Federal Government to add $550 to fortnightly payments through the coronavirus supplement. The supplement has reduced the disruption for the newly unemployed and given JobSeeker recipients much-needed relief to pay for basic necessities. It has not made them well off, but has reduced the stress of poverty and kept people afloat. Anglicare Australia's recentRental Affordability Snapshot report identified that even with the coronavirus supplement, only 1 per cent of rentals are affordable for JobSeeker recipients. While rents at the higher end of the market have dropped, the bottom end has not changed. Meanwhile, the larger number of people now on lower incomes has made the bottom end of the market more competitive, making things worse for people already in poverty.

This week the JobSeeker rate will be cut by $300 a fortnight, leaving less than 0.4 per cent of homes in reach for single parents and 1.5 per cent for couples with two children. If payments are cut again in December as planned, there will be no homes in reach for people who do not have work. Around a million children are now dependent on a parent on JobSeeker, and the impact on them will be devastating. Those on the lowest incomes have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Jobs that require face‑to‑face interaction, such as waiting, sales and customer service, are lower paid and generally cannot be done at home. TheSydney Poverty and Inequality Partnership Report by the Australian Council of Social Services and the University of New South Wales found that the gap between those on the highest and the lowest incomes widened by six times what it was before the pandemic. If the coronavirus supplement is removed, that gap will be even wider.

Many workers have been kept employed through JobKeeper payments, but there is no guarantee that their employers will survive the pandemic, a grossly smaller economy or post‑pandemic social and work trends. Come March we will likely see more people transfer to JobSeeker. Following the final reduction in the JobSeeker rate, mortgage holidays and the moratorium on residential evictions for rental arrears will be lifted. In the coming months more people will be forced from their homes, competing for the bottom end of the rental market and joining social housing queues. The Government has housed 1,200 rough sleepers during the pandemic, but the causes of rough sleeping continue and threaten to boil over into crisis. A social and affordable housing investment boom is needed urgently. Before the pandemic, homelessness services argued that we need to build 5,000 additional social housing units every year over the next decade to keep up with demand. That is more important than ever and also would support construction jobs.

The New South Wales Council of Social Service is calling for a 20 per cent funding increase for specialist homelessness services to help women and children leave violent households, and for essential community services to address additional needs. It recommends health‑led multidisciplinary teams on public housing estates to coordinate tenant care and support for the most vulnerable. Job creation must target those who are most affected by unemployment, including women and young people. The pandemic has exposed critical needs in health, aged care, disability and child care. I commend the commitment to training and reskilling those who have lost jobs and businesses. Ongoing support for retooling and innovation is needed. The virus has exposed and widened existing inequality. Addressing poverty must be the focus of the next State budget, and the Government must advocate for the Commonwealth to retain the JobSeeker coronavirus supplement permanently. If we let poverty prevail with wider homelessness, it will impact on the economy and drag the rest of the country down. I call on this House to make addressing poverty a priority.