There’s no doubt Australia’s economy is roaring back. GDP rose by 3.1 per cent in the December 2020 quarter, and unemployment figures have exceeded expectations, falling to 5.6 per cent.
"Australia’s performance on both the health and the economic front is world-leading, with our economy outperforming all other advanced economies in 2020," Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said in March.
But the positive figures have been criticised by some as a “two-speed recovery” with a new report revealing that crucial organisations supporting Australia’s most vulnerable communities are still under huge pressure amid underfunding.
Some Australians are still grappling with “very high levels of disadvantage” and “significant economic hardship”, with community services sector leaders voicing “confronting rising levels of need” for services that deal with homelessness, economic hardship, mental health and domestic violence.
The pandemic-triggered lockdowns saw thousands of Australians pushed into joblessness for the first time. But this put additional pressure on community services, with the higher demand meaning that people’s needs became more complex and intense.
That’s according to a new study conducted by UNSW’s Social Policy Research Centre and commissioned by the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS).
And while the JobSeeker rate was effectively doubled during the pandemic, and the JobKeeper wage subsidy kept many businesses afloat, many Australians are still experiencing “increased social disadvantage,” the report said.
“People in the community have experienced significant economic loss, often for the first time, leading to increased need for services and supports including emergency relief and family support. New groups of clients, including some who had previously experienced reasonable levels of security, are seeking support.”
Adding to the strain are international students and people on temporary visas, who have turned to community services in the absence of JobSeeker, which is not available to them.
Laundry list of social issues have worsened since COVID
Additionally, the heightened levels of isolation and loneliness have lingered, with many social groups’ mental health needs unmet, the report said.
A Headspace report from August 2020 found 74 per cent of young Australians said their mental health had worsened since the outbreak of COVID-19. A UNSW professor also warned about the lingering fallout of the pandemic on mental health, warning that those with pre-existing mental disorders would experience greater distress.
“Border closures and associated uncertainty about travel, have cut individuals and families off from their usual support networks of family interstate or overseas," the ACOSS report stated.
“Leaders have seen many people with significant mental health issues fall through the cracks of psychosocial services and the NDIS.”
This has been further compounded by the greater difficulty in administering mental health services due to lockdowns and social distancing.
Levels of domestic and family violence also rose during the pandemic as vulnerable women and families were forced to stay at home with abusive partners in what the community leaders have described as an “epidemic”.
“Increases in community need have persisted well beyond the lockdown periods of 2020, and many services are working with people with very complex needs.”
And as house prices rise dramatically, housing affordability has gone the other way, with greater pressure on housing and homelessness services the result amid housing insecurity, the report said.
The ‘mass exodus’ to regional living by city dwellers has also increased pressure on regional rent prices, exacerbating housing inequality as people tried to find affordable housing. ‘Tent cities’ have also been reported in some regional areas.
Layered on top of all these issues are higher delivery costs for service providers, who have had to pivot their modes of delivery during the lockdown.
“Under-investment has constrained transition to new, more expansive service models. Communities have incurred unanticipated costs due to the rise in digital service delivery, and digital inequalities endure, with many populations needing or preferring face-to-face models of service delivery or hybrid options,” the report said.
Community services forced to turn away 'queues out the door'
ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie said community services were doing all they can to help desperate people, but were being hamstrung by limited resources.
“They’re having to turn away women escaping domestic violence and people with nowhere to sleep that night. They’re reporting ‘queues out the door’, including of international students who’ve been left without access to income support during a global pandemic,” she said.
The leaders of service providers were bracing for a ‘tsunami’ of need ahead of the winding down of JobKeeper and the JobSeeker Supplement.
“Many service providers are now telling us that these grim predictions are being borne out, with almost 3 million people, including about 1 million children having been plunged into deeper poverty at the end of March 2021.”
“The reality is that we’re seeing a two-speed COVID recovery with millions being left behind in unemployment or underemployment, while those in well-paid jobs enjoy generous tax cuts.”
The path forward
Goldie called on the Federal Government to ensure the upcoming federal budget would have adequate funding for the community sector.
“The Government must invest in quality community services we can all rely on, generate decent jobs in the care sector and deliver on equal pay for all community sector workers.
"It must set us up to better meet the challenges of COVID and natural disasters by funding partnership approaches to health promotion and education, and local community resilience hubs,” she said.
“The report highlights the deep need for income support payments like JobSeeker to be lifted above the poverty line. We also need to see improvements to the domestic violence crisis payment and Rent Assistance, as well as investment in social housing."
During the pandemic, the Federal Government added 10 extra Medicare-subsidised psychology therapy sessions per year to help Australians deal with the extra mental strain.
Health Minister Greg Hunt announced on Monday that telehealth services would be extended to the end of the year.
“The extension will ensure that Australians can continue to see their GP, renew scripts and seek mental health support from the safety of their own home," he said.
If you need help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.