Mandy Webber picks up another box and starts to pack.
It’s a routine the JobSeeker recipient in Melbourne’s outer suburbs has become used to.
- Six million Australians are eligible for the one-off $250 cost-of-living payment announced in Tuesday’s budget
- But welfare advocates say the money won’t go very far for those living below the poverty line
- They say raising income tests would provide longer-term help and have a greater flow-on effect
Once again, rent has overwhelmed her family’s finances and she’s moving for the fourth time in the last two years.
Mandy is among the 6 million Australians on government payments who will receive the new one-off $250 cost-of-living bonus announced in Tuesday’s federal budget.
“It’ll last three seconds in my bank account,” she told the ABC.
“The cost of living is way more than $250, it’s not going to change anything in my house, so it’s not going to help with the increased cost of living.
“It’s not going to do anything.”
In 2020, the ABC spoke with Mandy about how the coronavirus supplement had changed her family’s life.
It temporarily boosted her Centrelink payment by $550 a fortnight, allowing her to buy winter clothes for her daughters for the first time in years.
But that payment is long gone.
“Now it’s just like you’re getting kicked while you’re already down,” she said.
‘It won’t last long’
The government says the cost-of-living payment will cost $1.5 billion, and is part of a number of budget measures aimed at combating rising costs.
“Events abroad are pushing up the cost of living at home: Higher fuel, food and shipping costs are increasing inflation and stretching household budgets,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said in his budget speech.
“This budget’s new cost-of-living package is responsible and targeted, delivering cheaper fuel, cheaper medicines and putting more money in the pockets of millions of Australians.”
The 6 million Australians set to receive the payment are varied.
“It’s everyone from self-funded retirees, who are among the most financially comfortable people in the entire community, through to JobSeeker recipients, who have the highest rates of poverty of anyone in Australia,” said Brendan Coates, the Grattan Institute’s economic policy program director.
No one would turn away money in their hip pocket, Mr Coates said, but for those without savings, it won’t last long.
‘It’s costing me money to go to work’
The JobSeeker payment for a single person is now $642 a fortnight.
That’s well below the poverty line, estimated by welfare groups to be between $1,000 and $1,200 a fortnight.
“The $250 payment is nowhere near adequate. It doesn’t cover rents. It doesn’t cover [food], bills for people who are struggling,” Antipoverty Centre spokesperson Jay Coonan said.
To really address the cost of living, advocates say the government should start changing rules for those on payments such as JobSeeker and the Disability Support Pension (DSP).
As Mandy discovered while on JobSeeker, the more casual hours you work, the more your payment goes down.
“You generally want to work, but you’re losing money by them cutting so much of your [payment],” she said.
Someone on JobSeeker working seven hours a week at the casual minimum wage of $25 per hour would earn $350 a fortnight. Their JobSeeker payment would be reduced by $110 a fortnight.
If they worked 14 hours a week, earning $700 a fortnight, they’d lose even more: $320 from their JobSeeker payment.
All up, the income from work and JobSeeker are more than the income they’d receive from Centrelink alone.
But, according to Mandy, that doesn’t include expenses.
“It’s costing maybe potentially childcare, petrol, uniform, clothing, food — it’s easier to stay on Centrelink.”
Increasing the hours JobSeeker recipients can work without their Centrelink payments being reduced would be an immediate boost to their bottom line.
“If you relax those thresholds, that’s something that is worth exploring, because there are genuine questions about whether those thresholds … are too strict,” Mr Coates said.
‘I don’t understand it’
The work thresholds certainly feel too strict for Miranda Miller.
After four years of recovery from cancer, the Sydneysider is on the DSP.
Now she would like to return to part-time work.
Previously she worked as a casual in an office administrative role. At casual hourly rates, she could only work a few hours a week before her DSP started to decline.
“I can’t even engage in any type of work that would be appropriate for my experience level that wouldn’t penalise me for engaging in it in the first place,” she said.
And the $250 cost-of-living-payment coming her way? It’s already been directed to medical specialists.
“If I’m honest with you, I’ve already spent it,” she said.
“What I’ve done is I’ve taken $250 and I simply called out to make appointments.
“That’s what the majority of the people that I know in my position are doing with this money. It’s already gone as soon as we have it because we’re already at a deficit every week.”
Welfare advocates say raising the work-hour threshold would allow recipients to earn enough to get above the poverty line, and there would be significant flow-on economic benefits.
“People being able to work more means they pay more tax,” Mr Coonan said.
“The economic flow-on is the same, if people are earning more, they’re spending it.”
For Miranda, even a modest income boost would let her do something she hasn’t been able to do for years: plan for the future.
“I have to make very significant decisions, not based on my ability or based on my drive or my dreams but based on what I can afford right now,” she said.
“Today, there’s nothing that exists beyond 30 days for me. Anything outside of that is a pipe dream.”