Around 14 million Australians are currently included in the Greater Sydney, Victoria and South Australian lockdowns, with 940,000 of those receiving social security like JobSeeker or Youth Allowance.
While the respective state governments have begun rolling out COVID-19 Disaster Payments of between $375 and $600 for those who have lost income, the amount available depends on hours worked, while those who receive social security payments are completely ineligible.
It’s a detail that welfare advocates are concerned will leave hundreds of thousands of Australians at risk.
Workers on JobSeeker who previously would have combined wages with social security to support themselves are ineligible for the COVID-19 Disaster Payments, meaning their maximum income is capped at $315 per week, or $44 a day, even if previously they were earning more.
If they are renting, JobSeeker recipients may also receive up to $70 a week.
Workers who have lost less than eight hours of work are also ineligible for the Disaster Payments.
“This is a public health issue – people can’t stay home in lockdown if they lose their home because they cannot afford to keep it,” said Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) CEO Cassandra Goldie.
“The Government has set up a two-tier response, with people who lost more than 20 hours of paid work per week eligible for $600 per week and those who lost less than that or lost their job before the lockdown forced to try to get by below the poverty line.
“We need to immediately extend Disaster Payments to lift all incomes up to $600 per week, especially for those renting. When Federal Parliament returns, we need to fix social security arrangements for lockdowns to deliver an income floor for all.”
People forced to choose between food, rent, medicine
A survey carried out by ACOSS found that people were being forced to choose whether to spend their money on food, rent or medicine.
Half of the survey respondents said they were concerned they would not be able to afford their housing and would be forced into homelessness.
“I was working in hospitality as a casual 20 hours a week. The bar has closed, so no work for me. Because I was underemployed, I was still receiving a small amount of JobSeeker. As such, I am not entitled to any (Covid Disaster Payment) assistance,” one respondent told ACOSS.
“Even if I was entitled to assistance, it would not replace the amount of income I have lost. I realise a lot of people have lost a lot more income than I have but we really have nothing to fall back on.”
ACOSS said the Government needs to extend the Disaster Payments to include those already receiving welfare payments and increase Commonwealth Rent Assistance by 50 per cent.
Rent Assistance has not increased above inflation in the last 20 years.
However, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the Government doesn’t plan to change either social security, or the COVID-19 Disaster Payment settings.
“What the Government is doing is providing some basic income support for those who aren’t on the social security system, who don’t get any support from the Government,” he told Triple J Hack on Thursday.
“This helps them tide them over. It’s not designed to completely replace the wage you were getting before or the income you were getting before. It’s designed to try and help people through what is a very difficult time.”
Social services swamped by demand in lockdown
The NSW Council of Social Services (NCOSS), together with Foodbank NSW and ACT and Fairfield charity Community First Step warned of escalating demand.
NCOSS CEO Joanna Quilty said the Disaster Payment’s design had put vulnerable households in “impossible situations”, and increased the burden on community organisations to “come to the rescue.
“We are seeing a tsunami of need from families and individuals throughout Sydney as the lockdown drags on,” Foodbank NSW and ACT CEO John Robertson Robertson added.
“What’s really noticeable is that this time around, there is no JobSeeker supplement taking the pressure off the really vulnerable households.
“Services will not be able to continue to meet this demand unless we see action from the Federal Government which lifts pressure off families who cannot put food on the table.”