My Life On Newstart (Just a hint of science)

Jenny Macklin’s mumbled response, and the mysterious disappearance of her words from the transcript, seem to have finally got the issue of survival on Newstart onto the public agenda. A number of people posted their own experiences so I thought I would add mine.I think the situation is a bit more complex than the “its too bloody low” discourse that is occuring at the moment, although I do agree that is not a bad place to start.

I was on an off unemployment benefits for quite a while. However, my situation was a bit different from the one that gets talked about most of the time. One aspect was that initially I was still living with my parents. I was paying for most aspects of my needs, but not for rent, which is the thing that really makes life on the dole hard. I’ve been puzzled ever since as to why the campaign for more money for the unemployed does not focus on raising rent assistance, rather than the basic benefit. Perhaps it would not matter – maybe the number of people getting benefits who are not also paying rent is trivial. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that it is those who are struggling with hefty rents who really need the money, and any rise should be focussed on them.

The other way in which my experience differed from those we usually see described is that I was never unemployed under the technical definition used by the government. That is, Christmas/New Year aside, there were no fortnights in which I did not have at least an hour of paid employment. In fact I don’t think there were any where I had less than three.

Some people are surprised to discover that you can still get “unemployment benefits” when not technically unemployed. However, closer examination makes the logic irrefutable. If someone gets a part time job that pays, say $150 a week, it would obviously make no sense to deny them Newstart, which pays $246 a week. Who would take such a job? Such a situation would be bad for employers with small roles to fill, and would prevent the unemployed from getting positions that might start building up their skills.*

You can earn a small amount without having your Newstart payments reduced, and above that level payments gradually reduce the more you earn. I think something could be done about the rates at which the payments reduce – the loss of income for every dollar you earn is much higher for someone on Newstart than someone in the top tax bracket – but the basic idea is sound.

The problem, in my experience, is in the bureaucracy one has to deal with if working part time. I was fastidious about declaring all my income from other sources. However, far from being rewarded for this I was punished. This matters, because with the growing casualisation of the workforce, the number of people in positions similar to mine (then) is growing. If it has not already exceeded the numbers who are unemployed entirely it will soon enough.

Quite early on in my time being depending on government support I got a 9 week burst of work. It was far from full time – certainly no luxury – but it meant I was earning enough that I wasn’t eligible to for payments. I knew it was not going to last, but I dropped off Newstart, figuring that there was no point for either myself or the government having me turn up every fortnight to drop in a form saying I was entitled to no money (particularly since I was still required to list two jobs I had applied for that fortnight, even if I wasn’t eligible for any payments). Big mistake. When I re-applied I was made to wait for 13 weeks to get back on benefits so that I could run down any savings I made while I was working. The staffmember at Centrelink (or whatever the constantly changing name was at the time) told me I should stay on and keep dropping in the forms in future.

I learned this lesson, but it seems the Centrelink bureaucracy did not. As time went on the periods where I was earning over the threshold grew longer, and the periods where I was actually getting money were shorter. Even when I was getting payments they were well short of the full amount, so I was hardly a huge draw on the taxpayer. Still, I depended on them. By this stage I had moved out of my parent’s house and even $50 a week was pretty crucial during the periods where the work got thin.

Yet because I had been on the books for quite a while, I was hounded to do more to get work. I was twice sent off to “jobsearch training”, if I recall the terminology correctly. This was a truly appalling experience. I was made to choose a service provider over the phone without any chance to research them. The first time I ended up at one that specialised in helping people whose first language was Greek. I don’t speak a word of Greek, other than terms that have been adopted by science. Moreover, such a body was naturally focussed on people in their 50s who had worked in manufacturing and such like. They didn’t really relate to someone in his 20s who was by this point starting to get work as a science writer (two mentions in one paragraph – told you there was a hint).

I explained to the caseworker that in recent times I had work in three fields, and that I was hoping to get these to the point where I was off Newstart for good. She clearly didn’t understand any of my jobs, but misunderstood one of them badly enough to tell me I was never going to get serious work there, and should concentrate on one of the others. Fortunately I did not listen to her – not long later field lead me to 15 months of work on the highest pay I have received before or since. Amongst other things, it was 15 months of blessed relief from having to deal with Newstart, not to mention the fact that the government got back in tax all the money they’d paid me while I was on benefits.

I didn’t want to complain too much, because the rest of the people in the room clearly had it much worse than me. Men in their 50s and 60s, often with little interest, who had worked for years in what they must have thought were low-paid but secure jobs, only to have the work ripped out from under them at a point in their life where re-training was hard, and employers probably wouldn’t take them even if they could. It was heartbreaking. And for someone who was struggling to remain optimistic about how long it was taking me to get more extensive work there was a real danger I would be tipped into a depressive spiral that would actually prevent me from getting work. Halfway through the period I was supposed to be going to this training my sister visited from England and I simply stopped going. Although this should have meant my benefits were cut I took the risk, hoping if necessary that I could use her visit as an excuse. I was never contacted about my failure to attend.

Depression was a serious risk here. Earlier in the process there had been a period where I was so depressed I shuttled between applying for jobs almost at random, just so I could feel like I was doing something, and not applying for jobs I would actually have been suitable for, because my self esteem was so low I couldn’t see them taking me (and I also couldn’t take another knockback). This very nearly ended in tragedy. A couple of friends sent on a message about a job they thought would suit me well. I inquired about it and got a very brusque response saying that the job entailed more than just the aspect I had mentioned in my inquiry. Many of the other roles listed were ones I knew I would not be good at and I didn’t put in an application.

A couple of days before Christmas, with suicide very much in my thoughts, I got an email from the employer. No one suitable had applied for the job, was I still interested? Was I ever! I shot back a response and received in return a seriously badly written article on medical research. If I could turn this into something publishable the position was mine. I have never worked so hard on a piece of writing in my life, and obviously what I produced made the grade. I started the first week in January, and have now been at Australasian Science for 16 years, albeit usually only a day a week. It’s pretty much core to my identity, and has been the springboard both to freelance writing, this blog, and of course my book.

It turned out the other aspects of the job listed in that return email were pretty minor – I was never asked to do some, and others got dropped when my publisher realised I was actually really good at the science writing and not at the other roles.

I’m not just telling this story out of personal confession, but because it illustrates one of the most important aspects of life on the dole. Depression can be a huge hindrance to getting work. It stopped me applying for a job I was manifestly suited to. I was just incredibly lucky to get a second go. Yet instead of assisting those with depression, much of the workings of Centrelink seem to be specifically designed to induce it. I’m not sure if dole diaries are still in use, but pretty much everyone I met who had one saw them as an instrument to bully and punish those receiving benefits. I think the link between bullying and depression is pretty well established.

It’s true that in some cases the system of punishment around receiving benefits can work in the recipients’ favour. Some people with low self regard do respond to the pressure by applying for jobs they otherwise wouldn’t. Occasionally this leads to work. For others just the act of getting busy and writing an application may be a positive experience, compared to spending time in front of the TV, and spur them into further steps. But I would be  surprised if the number of these cases outweighs the number where people are ground down by the process, left feeling even more worthless and less capable of finding work that might suit them. Its a subject that would lend itself to some serious research, but I doubt the prospects of anyone seeking a grant to actually study it.

The sheer craziness of the system was encapsulated by the experience of my then housemate. She was on the books for eight employers who called her up when they had work. Centrelink required her to provide them with letters from each one indicating that they had not employed her during the previous fortnight – just in case she might have been lying about what work she had, but not thinking to lie about whose books she might be on. Alternatively, she could go round to each employer, on a fortnightly basis, and have them stamp a form saying they had not employed her. Because if you’re helping someone to get work the best thing you can do is a) have them waste two days a fortnight travelling from one location to another for get forms stamped and b) piss off all her potential employers by making them do extra unnecessary work and make clear to them that this employee is not in high demand elsewhere.

I honestly don’t know if the system is actually designed by sadists who sit around thinking about how they can make life hell for those getting benefits, or if someone thinks these sorts of things actually work. It’s hard to imagine the savings on fraud outweigh the costs if implementation, particularly since the provide a powerful incentive for honest recipients to lie about the work they do get so as to avoid further questions.

The current bout of attention on the plight of those on welfare has been brought about by the heartless decision to cut payments for single parents with children over the age of 8. I have no direct experience of that, but I can only imagine how tough it must be to raise a child under these circumstances. Not to mention what a bad start in life it must be to be growing up in the sort of poverty Newstart would create.

However, when people call for ministers to attempt to live on $246 a week I think they’ve only got half the point. The lack of money is important, but what I’d also like to see Jenny Macklin being made to navigate her way through the bizarre maze her department has created to actually get that money, particularly for someone earning a pittance here and there from erratic part-time work.

Update: a little more here.

*I have read that in the US they actually do kick people off unemployment benefits if they get any work at all, even if the job pays less than the benefits they were on. Utter madness, if true. I’ve also read that some states are sensible enough to modify the national program so as to avoid this problem


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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