Surviving on Pensions, Some Extra Thoughts

I got what is, by the standards of this very humble blog, quite a lot of response to the last three posts. I’m going to attribute that to the topics, not to the time of year, and post some related pieces.

While I work on something more about climate I thought I would add two extra stories about living on low income, and yes there is even a science connection in the first.

During my first period of unemployment I decided my problem was a lack of qualifications and decided to get a more specialist degree, to go with my two very generalist bachelors. In the end I settled on the Graduate Diploma in Science Communication at ANU (the course still exists, but has been modified somewhat and is now a Masters).

This course is the only one of its kind in Australia, and requires attendance in Canberra, so living with my parents was not an option. Moreover, students spend 12 weeks, in four three week blocks, travelling around regional Australia. Consequently it is pretty much impossible to hold down a job while doing it, even if you had the time when not on the road.

Fortunately, the course is the recipient of a remarkable amount of commercial sponsorship, which includes a scholarship. I was certainly ethically troubled by taking money to promote a company that had, not long before, been up to their necks in the legal murder of a genuine hero, but I figured the impotent are pure. It wasn’t as if there were any other courses offering the same training with sponsorship from better places.

The relevance of this to the current debate is that the scholarship at the time was an amount on which one could survive if you had cheap rent, spent nothing on entertainment, didn’t drink, ate at home and never got sick. However, about half the students in the course were also eligible for Ausstudy, and the sholarship didn’t interfere, that is the amount was not docked on the basis of having other income. Now Austudy is also thoroughly inadequate if you actually want to live, rather than just subsist. But on top of the scholarship – it was a luxury.

So we had a situation where there were 15 of us, for much of the time sharing hotel rooms and with no choice but to socialise together, with half having a very comfortable income while the other half could barely afford a bus ticket.

When I applied for Austudy it was unclear whether I was eligible, and somehow it was decided that I should get partial payment for most, but not all the period of the course. As far as I could see this made no legal sense whatever, but this payment was enough to live reasonably comfortably if I didn’t lash out too much, so I took it, rather than than challenging the decision and possibly ending up with nothing.

There’s already something of a Big Brother (the TV series not the surveillance state) effect of putting a group of people with very differing personalities in an environment where they can’t get away from each other for weeks at a time (quite often on the road we were randomly forced to share bedrooms with the other students) throwing in a manufacture class system just adds an extra frisson.

Now, we were all pretty middle class kids, and even those who didn’t get Austudy usually had access to lines of credit from their parents (or in one case wife) but its actually a bit of a wake-up call when at the end of a 12 hour day of working you all try to get something to eat and realise that some people can’t really afford anything above pizza or burgers.

People may not starve in Australia, but being poor in an environment when others’ wealth is very much in your face is a factor that is seldom accounted for when determining the level of support payments. I suspect it should be a particularly large factor for those with children.

Which brings me to the other story. I’ve told this before elsewhere, but I think it bares repeating. These days, although I would still like more work for myself the rest of the year, I am a partner in a company that employs up to 30 people for a few weeks in September.

One year we realised that, well before the peak, three of us needed to be in four places at once one day. I phoned a single mother and asked if she wanted three hours work a month of so before we’d organised for her to start. She started thanking me so hard she was hyperventilating down the phone line. I thought this was a bit of an over-reaction but she explained she had spent that morning pleading for extra time to pay an unexpected bill. The request had been refused, and when I called she had been going through her shopping list working out how she could live on rice and pasta herself while still providing her child a balanced diet.

I said, “Look its only $75, but don’t worry, we’ll advance you whatever you need against the September work”. “Thanks,” she responded, “But the bill is $60.”

Ok its not quite Fantine and Jean Valjean, but I rather thought we were aiming to be past that. The first point out of this is fairly obvious: something is seriously wrong when an intelligent frugal woman with no addictions or vices lives that close to destitution. It’s true that the woman in question was paying higher rent than most single parents, but moving to a cheaper suburb would have seen much of the savings used up in transport costs.

The second point is that this occurred while she was on the single parenting allowance. I have no idea how someone is supposed to raise a child on Newstart alone, as parents are now required to do once their child turns eight. The brutal “get a job” is not much help. As revealed here (hat tip Ken Parish) the structure of Newstart means that single parents  will barely be any better off until they are earning more than 25,000, which isn’t easy if the only work available is part time. So we haven’t just created a poverty trap for the unemployed, but for the semi-employed as well, a group that is already large, and likely to get larger. All while their children are surrounded by signs of wealth amongst others. Even if you don’t care about children growing up in these circumstances, won’t somebody think of the crime rate.

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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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One Response to Surviving on Pensions, Some Extra Thoughts

  1. Pingback: My Life On Newstart (Just a hint of science) | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

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