Could you survive on $450 a fortnight?
Welfare recipients in Australia are too often characterised as do-nothing schemers, out to build a life for themselves off backs of "hard-working" Australians, and the rumour mill is overflowing with hearsay — there is always someone you know with an unsubstantiated story or two about an unemployed welfare skimmer building a house, nursing a can of VB, and lounging around watching The Bachelor.
It isn't enough that those on the receiving end of government assistance are made to watch as the nation defines them as “dole-bludgers”, but certain members of the press relish in using the same inane and malicious rhetoric. Now, with new laws set to impact Centrelink beneficiaries, it's time that coverage centres on the voices of recipients instead of strictly talking at them.
Social Services Minister Dan Tehan employs similar rhetoric when describing welfare recipients, telling News Ltd, “People don’t want to see their taxpayer dollars funding the lifestyles of people who refuse to look for work and do the right thing."
What Tehan and other well-paid career politicians fail to mention, and quite purposefully, is that welfare recipients have paid into these services, and systemic poverty plays an integral role in how one accesses welfare.
Vanamali Hermans, a 19-year-old sociology student at Australian National University, tells Fairfax Media that, after attending school far from home with no financial support system, she began receiving $450 a fortnight in Youth Allowance payments which left her “just enough to survive”.
Unlike most of her friends at university, Hermans couldn't rely on income from her parents, as they barely survive on their own payments. “I don’t think people understand how intergenerational poverty unravels, limiting your ability to climb above the poverty line.”
In 2016, Hermans' mother fell ill, became a quadriplegic, and the system's invasive and antagonistic methods became abundantly clear. “She has been in hospital for over 18 months, and during this time I had to notify Centrelink of her change of circumstances, that she was no longer a carer but disabled herself.
"For four months Centrelink refused to grant her Disability Support Pension (DSP) and put her on Newstart, cutting off her payments when she missed job appointments. This was despite me explaining she was a quadriplegic, in an intensive care unit, attached to a ventilator. I had never felt more demoralised or hopeless in my life.
"When they finally did grant mum her DSP application, they required copies of her ID again – despite having it on file as she’d been receiving the carer’s pension prior. Mum’s licence had expired because she’d been in hospital for so long and it was impossible to get her a new one or a photo ID card as she was still attached to the ventilator. We were extremely, extremely lucky to have an empathetic case worker who let it slide. But I know for many this wouldn’t have happened, because the bureaucracy of qualifying for payments is so unforgiving.”
Jonno Revanche, a 26-year-old student and freelance journalist, has been using Centrelink for nearly 4 years while underemployed and pursuing an internship in Sydney. Revanche, who subsists on $500 a fortnight argues that the services Centrelink clients have to traverse are “prohibitively complicated, slow, and convoluted”.
Revanche tells Fairfax Media that not only have they been denied initial payments over a technicality, but so have others, and this has forced them into having to go through the long process of applying — which can take months.
“If you miss even one appointment they might cut your payment and communication is often compromised because of system mistakes. Even if you technically 'abused' the system, you'd still be getting barely any money and so much effort is put into catching 'cheats' (who are unreasonably poor) that no one gets away with it anyway. They're basically hung in the town square.”
When asked about the possible impact of a government crackdown on unemployed Centrelink recipients, Revanche explains that even under a specific Centrelink plan which already takes their mental illness into account, they are still expected to undergo activities that are incompatible with their abilities, and they are often taunted by a constantly changing shift of caseworkers which forces them to explain their circumstances over and over.
“I had one caseworker tell me upfront that she was rewarded the more she was able to get people off payments and wanted to get me off somehow. It's hilarious how obvious it is that vulnerable Centrelink recipients are just pawns for an overarching political game.
"Those at the top generally incentivise chasing vulnerable people off payments even though it's usually their only option, and the amount of jobseekers is something like 5 times the amount of available jobs.”
The media's obsession with covering the nonexistent Centrelink menace, while all but ignoring the impact of corporate tax cuts on low income households, is helping to turn fabrications against welfare recipients into acceptable discourse about government assistance. The impression such rhetoric leaves behind has lasting consequences, especially for those who are constantly made to prove their humanity to a restrictive welfare apparatus.