Greens Senator Rachel Siewert's Newstart Campaign is leading calls for an overhaul of Australia's income support system, including a $50 per week increase to Allowance payments such as Newstart.
As part of the campaign, Rachel lived on Newstart for a week and spent the time talking to individuals and community organisations about the income support system.
We asked you to share you stories about life on Newstart and we're really grateful to have received so many responses. Here are a few of the stories that people have sent in. Please note that we haven't used people's real names for privacy reasons.
"I am a single mum of four children, two are now adults but two are under 12.
When I heard about the changes I was in tears. I totally agree with what has been said in that I am not against lowering the age of the child but yes 8 is way too young.It should be 12. I do casual work for the ATO for around six months in a year and I also have been studying part -time to keep my skills up etc, but I did not wish to go back to full time work until all my children started high school.
My youngest being 9, this means another 3 years for me. Trying to find a job within school hours is impossible and trying to afford before/after school care is near impossible as well. The after care closet to me has a waiting list anyway. I don't have anyone who could look after my children if I should have to leave early or be home late. Life is hard with children when you don't have a partner and now thanks to Labor it's about to become even harder.
Thank you for listening."
"10-15 years ago I was living on Newstart, and there were weeks I didn't eat.
I am unsure how the system has changed, if at all, but for the full experience you should sign up with a job network too and see how that works. You could not just apply for any job, it had to be a job listed with your job network member. If you wanted to apply for a job with another network member you then had to change over.
I had no work experience, yet Centrelink advised me NOT to do any volunteer work until I had to do so for mutual obligation. That volunteer work eventually led to twelve years of employment. While working part time in the same job the volunteer work led to, my job network member told me I had to do two weeks intensive job search training. I pointed out I was working 2-3 days a week, and was told to quit the job. Fortunately it soon turned to full time work.
More recently I lost that same job after many years employed. I spent a large amount of my redundancy on paying off my credit card - I didn't want to be in debt while unemployed. I later found out this was a huge mistake. That is not a valid use of the money, and Centrelink refused payment until July. I was not applying for Newstart as I had been studying and working full time for two years and wanted to finish my degree. Austudy is even less money than Newstart, but it would at least cover my rent.
Centrelink refused to help. If I ran out of money and couldn't pay my rent I was told they would put me in contact with a homeless shelter. I can't see how this is an acceptable result in Australia?
I was lucky enough to get a new job, beating 450 other applicants and the 45 others shortlisted for the position. The first pay came in as the last of my savings ran out and my credit card was close to maxxed.
I just wanted to point out that the low payment rate is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems with Centrelink."
"I have been a single mum for 12.5 years, when my partner of 5 years walked out on me, and my 12 week old baby, to pursue a relationship with another woman. He visits our son about once a year, and contributes $38 a week in child support, yet it is always the mums who face the scorn of the government's "razor gangs".
I returned to work when my son was 7 weeks old, earning a reasonable income as a chef. But, the split shifts and weekend work became difficult to maintain as a single parent, especially arranging care for my son so I could work at night.
Eventually I ran out of care options and left my job to find day shifts elsewhere. I spent nine years working about 30 hours a week, cooking for children in a day care centre. The day work was great for fitting in with parenting, but the job was a dead end - no advancement possibilities, and so poorly paid that I was falling further into debt as each year passed.
Two and a half years ago, I decided that the only way I could break free from poverty was if I retrained in a more lucrative field. So, I returned to university. Centrelink was not impressed, but eventually accepted that my studies were an acceptable activity to continue receiving benefits.
While studying full-time I also worked as a volunteer one day a week with disabled children and worked five nights a week as a commercial cleaner. It has been a near impossible feat to maintain all of my responsibilities and I am permanently exhausted.
I am now half way through a masters degree in occupational therapy, but feeling very ill about whether I will continue receiving support until I finish. My son is 12 and has autism, his IQ is 79, so he falls in the borderline category for intellectual disability.
I know from past dealings with Centrelink that his difficulties don't exempt me from anything in their regard, so I am very concerned for our fate.
My son may be twelve, but he hasn't walked home from school once in his life. He has no road sense. He is certainly too young and immature to leave at home for any length of time alone. He has trouble coping with a 6 hour school day, let alone being stuck in before and after school care every day. And no child deserves to spend their well earned school holidays stuck in vacation care at school, (nor can most parents afford it).
The Gillard Government's social welfare reforms are flawed and poorly conceived, anyone with children would agree. The only people who will suffer will be the children, as parents are forced to make dreadful compromises. Thank you for standing up for us, when so few people do. Single parents do it tough and don't deserve another kick in the guts, there is enough prejudice out there as it is."
I was employed on a casual contract which ended in June 2012. Since then I have been applying for jobs but have been unsuccessful in obtaining even an interview. With funds running out I reluctantly applied for Newstart in September. Due to the system being overloaded, and difficulties obtaining an Employment Separation Certificate from my previous employer, it took 3 weeks for my claim to be processed and for me to start receiving payments. While this money will help to keep me afloat, I am growing increasingly concerned at the possibility of being long-term unemployed due to my skills and experience being suited to sectors that are experiencing severe contraction. Over the past few months I have applied for over 30 jobs and even with two postgraduate qualifications have still not obtained a single job interview. When I request feedback on my applications, organisations advise me they have received too many applications to provide this assistance. I have extended my search to include lower paying jobs such as administration and retail but to no avail. My situation provides an example of the flawed logic in setting Newstart low, so as to provide an incentive for people to work. I want to work, I am desperately seeking employment but that makes no difference if the jobs aren't available. I am increasingly feeling outcast from society, marginalised and ignored and my confidence is taking a severe beating. This too will not assist in my job search. As I have been classified Stream 1, I will not receive any assistance from JSA until the end of the year and even then, assistance will be minimal. In the current job market, Newstart is not simply a short-term, ‘stop-gap' measure.
Regarding the level of Newstart, again my situation causes me great concern and I am sure the following factors do not present an isolated case. First, due to a number of food intolerances I must eat a restricted diet e.g. gluten free, dairy free etc. Unfortunately suitable foods are far more expensive than their non-suitable equivalents e.g. I pay $7-8 for a loaf of bread, $3-4 for a packet of pasta. For these reasons, it is very difficult for me to maintain my weekly grocery bill at $80 or less. Second, for medical reasons I need to take vitamin supplements. Failing to do so will lead me to develop chronic health problems. Even when I reduce my intake as low as possible, these supplements still cost me around $100 per month. Third, I need to regularly see a health professional for long-term back, neck, shoulder and knee pain/injuries. This adds a further $70 to my monthly expenses. Fourth, being a part-time student I must pay for costs associated with study such as printing, text books, etc. Fifth, I live 15 minutes drive from my nearest Centrelink and Job Service Australia office. I minimise my visits to these offices by searching for jobs from my home computer, but neither travel nor internet costs are adequately reflected in Newstart payments. The current level of Newstart fails to consider anything but the bare minimum but what is the bare minimum? For me, choosing not to incur costs outlined above will have serious consequences. If I remain unemployed into 2013 I will need to sell my car to cover my costs of living thereby lessening my employment options and isolating me from society even further. Finally, I rent in the private rental market paying for a small, cheap, furnished studio. Rent Assistance falls far short of even this minimalist accommodation as it does with other rental options in capital cities.Rent Assistance needs to be indexed to the cost of living in each city.
I am also greatly concerned that Newstart recipients do not receive Phone Allowance or Pharmaceutical Allowance, both of which are available to recipients of other payments. The logic of this defies understanding as job seekers are reliant on their telephone in order to follow up job opportunities and applications. Furthermore, confusing, contradictory letters from Centrelink often require recipients to phone Centrelink or go to an office to seek clarification. For those with only a mobile phone (such as myself), phone calls to Centrelink can be costly, frustrating, time-consuming endeavours. Phone Allowance, Pharmaceutical Allowance and other similar payments, need to be extended to Newstart recipients particularly given the likelihood that in the current job market, people will remain on Newstart for extended periods of time. I could write further about extensive problems in dealing with Centrelink but realise this is beyond the scope of your committee and so will reserve these comments for another time.