Rachel Siewert’s recent ‘social experiment’ – pretending to live on Newstart payments – for a week is little more than a cheap political stunt that demonstrates her own naïveté and ignorance as much as it does that of the wider public. One would have thought that Australians did not need the simple truth of Australian welfare leaving workers in a parlous situation rammed down their throats in such a crude manner. Yet, as if to prove me wrong, AMP yesterday released a report saying that we’ve never had it better.
“How can it be that we’ve had 20 years of uninterrupted economic prosperity with very low inflation yet the cost of living remains a hot topic?”
From the report it would seem that the worsening financial situation of part of the population is okay because a) they’re poor, b) it is necessary for the economy to function with inequality and unemployment and c) they probably brought it upon themselves anyway.
Ostensibly, an attempt to point out the deficiencies of Australia’s welfare programme should be welcomed. However, I fail to see what Senator Siewert could have learned from her ‘experiment’ that could not have been learned through basic research and enquiry: frankly, her time and effort would have been more wisely invested in consulting with those in the situation she was trying to imitate.
Even the emotional impact would have been but a shadow of the reality: the Fairfax article covering the Senator’s ‘experiment’ begins by mentioning that the strict budget would not permit her to buy toothpaste if she ran out midweek and later mentions her apprehension about car troubles given that “the $12 in her wallet would not cover a new battery let alone a tow truck.” I find it hard to believe that someone on a base salary of $185,000 a year[PDF] would experience the same dread and cold-sweat panic that comes when you think that you won’t have enough money for the items being bagged and that you don’t have any other money to call on.
Senator Siewert could not have been more accurate when she declared her experience “would only scratch the surface of what jobseekers on Newstart have to go through” given that she continued to live in her “four-bedroom, two-bathroom house” rather than the one room apartment that she had budgeted for. Maybe the Senator didn’t have a sufficient credit rating, appropriate referees or enough money to pay the bond. It is also worth pointing out that, according to the ABC, 60% of Newstart recipients remain on payments for over 12 months, lowering to 20% after five years. One week is not long enough to experience the full mental and physical effects of being forced to live day-to-day.
It would be hard for such an ‘experiment’ to be completely useless and Senator Siewert does raise some valuable points, particularly on budgeting for a proper diet. In the ABC’s The Drum:
“Eating well on Newstart was impossible, even for a vegetarian. I ran out of vegetables on day five, and by the last day was down to eggs on toast for dinner.”
Amongst the several dangers of prepared meals and fast food are their cheapness. For those who are unused to having to budget strictly or who do not have fantastic cooking skills it may seem more economic and easier to just buy a prepared meal from the local butcher or get takeaway; there’s a reason students are renowned for living on Ramen noodles and EasyMac. It is also difficult when trying to cater for people with fussy eating habits: anyone who has cooked for a man over the age of 40 who has ever described salad as “rabbit food” or generally regards it with suspicion knows that, up until their first heart attack, most efforts to change their diets are futile. Considering a leg of lamb might cost $40 and even chicken breast can be up around $10-12 per kilo, sausages and products made from mechanically separated meat may be the only viable choice. With this in mind I find AMP’s inclusion of prepared meals in the ‘luxury item’ category unfair and quite disingenuous.
AMP’s report also includes tobacco and alcohol in the ‘luxury’ category and I was quite surprised to see no mention of either in the media surrounding Senator Siewert’s ‘experiment’. One might judge smokers and drinkers for lacking personal and moral integrity but this glosses over the fact that both tobacco and alcohol are addictive and that both can and are used as coping mechanisms. Obviously both are self-destructive habits and people who find themselves relying on either need to be given assistance but addiction is not something guaranteed to be solved by quitting cold turkey. In any case, having a go at someone for squandering their pittance on an addiction is rather pointless.
I also notice that Senator Siewert did not mention the process of applying for Newstart, the requirements of receiving payments or the impact of means-testing on her final payment level. Though Youth Allowance and Newstart are administered differently I would be surprised if Newstart recipients were not also subjected to the same level of invasive scrutiny as Youth Allowance recipients that results in swingeing cuts in the final payment level, being instructed by Centrelink staff to end relationships, liquidate and disburse any assets and to increase expenditure so that the Commonwealth can see that you are in need. I would also have been interested to learn of the impact of Centrelink on the suicide rate of Newstart recipients and applicants given their appalling treatment of ‘customers’.
Finally, I am curious about the Greens’ call for a $50 per week raise in Newstart. A report conducted by The Australia Institute suggested that Australians consider $454 per week ($65 per day) to be the amount necessary to support a single adult and that unemployed people should get $329 per week ($47 per day). If the Greens were successful in their bid to up Newstart, recipients would still be receiving $60 per week less than the population thinks they should – nearly $200 less than the amount needed to support a single adult. I do not know whether the Greens and ACOSS chose this number because it would be more palatable with the electorate but in any case it is still insufficient.
The harshest criticism must go to Wayne Swan for refusing to grant the rise in order that Australia might post a minor surplus at the end of next financial year and to Jenny Macklin for continuing with plans to quarantine welfare in low socio-economic areas after July this year, thus normalising and spreading the unjust discrimination and moral judgement that drives the Northern Territory Intervention.