Poverty underline

In the report, the words of people on welfare are set in italics. The letters are thinned slightly and pushed off-centre, as if after being written down they are still straining to be heard.

One person tells the committee they rarely can afford meat or fruit and vegetables. They must choose between one of three medications to manage their pain: the others are too expensive and so they go without. “So, they’re killing us, basically. They’re not helping us. They’re making us a hell of a lot worse.”

Others talk about being made suicidal by the trap of poverty and the meagre payments that keep people within it. One says: “No one is choosing this.”

The report from the interim economic inclusion advisory committee is clear and sensible. The million or so people on payments such as JobSeeker are being forced to live below the breadline. The government has one answer to this: increase the rates. The committee suggests it do so by 40 per cent.

“All indicators available to the committee show current rates of these payments are seriously inadequate, whether measured relative to the National Minimum Wage, in comparison with pensions, or against a range of income poverty measures,” the report says. “People on these payments face the highest levels of financial stress in Australia.”

The government released the report in time to avoid the evening news. Committee members were not briefed. The treasurer has essentially ruled out acting on its key recommendation: “The Albanese government will always look to provide support where we can to those most in need, where it is responsible and affordable to do so, and weighed up against other priorities and fiscal challenges.”

Here is the lie: where it is responsible and affordable to do so. The greatest fear of a Labor government is to be big-spending. They have inherited a welfare system built on punishment and are too afraid to fix it.

Poverty does not help people out of poverty. The real costs are not in what is paid to the unemployed but in all the other costs that mount up on top of their alienation. In refusing to raise the rate of JobSeeker, the treasurer is condemning a million people
to a life so difficult it is almost impossible to lift out of.

Over and over, the committee heard of untreated pain and skipped medical appointments. People who are too sick to work can’t afford the medicines to get well enough to work. It is a cycle of privation, the constant lack and soreness of being poor.

The experience of this is foreign to almost anyone in parliament or the public service. No one who knew what $45 a day could buy would accept that it was enough. No one who had lived in poverty, the kind of poverty that separates a person and pushes them further and further from the rest of society, would suggest it was responsible not to help.

When Jim Chalmers talks about “other priorities” he should be explicit: is he talking about stage three tax cuts, or coverage from the Murdoch press, or something else?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2023 as "Poverty underline".

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