On paper, our economy is doing well. But cold hard statistics are masking real life hardships – which may worsen with the end of JobKeeper and several other benefits, writes Travis de Jonk.
Key Australian economic figures from the last financial quarter, released early this month, took some economists, the government and the public by surprise. They revealed that our economy wasn’t plunging further into a Covid recession, as some experts had predicted, but instead was speedily rebounding into recovery. The report from Treasury revealed high consumer confidence and spending; that the number of people accessing JobKeeper had reduced from 3.8 million to 1.4 million; and against all odds, unemployment – which was forecast to rise sharply – had actually fallen to pre-pandemic levels, from 6.2 per cent to 5.8 per cent.
These figures were reported with a bouncy optimism and the government was quick to pat itself on the back and claim its initiatives and economic management was responsible for turning the economy around. Maybe they’re right. In the face of ongoing pressure to extend JobKeeper, they held up these positive figures as proof that their decision making was sound and that Australia was ready for the end of JobKeeper.
Research by Small Business Australia estimates that when JobKeeper ends, we could see the closure of up to 100,000 businesses, with an extra 150,000 Australians unemployed and joining dole queues.
Treasury forecasts a possible increase in the unemployment figure from 5.8 per cent to as high as 14 per cent, but describes it as a ‘bump’ from which Australia is set to quickly recover. This optimism seems to sit in opposition to the tone and mood that people shared with me as we edged closer to the slashing of benefits.
There are 1.6 million Australians on JobKeeper – the discontinuation of which on Sunday is conservatively estimated to add 150,000 more people to the unemployment line behind the 1.1 million people already there. Centrelink estimates put the number of available jobs at just over 280,000. You don’t have to be a genius to do the maths on this. Even if everyone was placed into available employment, 820,000 people would still be unemployed and on the shamefully inadequate JobSeeker payment. Among them are people barely surviving and worse yet, already homeless and descending into poverty.
While it has been the focus of media reporting, JobKeeper isn’t the only benefit that ended on Sunday. So did the moratorium on real estate evictions and the $150 Covid supplement to JobSeeker.
Even with the recent $50 a fortnight increase announced by the government, JobSeeker comes in at $310.40 a week (for a single person with no children) – a grossly inadequate 41.4 per cent of what is considered a liveable wage ($750 per week).
Furthermore, the unemployment rate of 5.8 per cent fails to take into account those who are considered underemployed or in insecure work but are not earning enough to meet their basic living needs. The optimistic government spin doesn’t consider the lack of affordable housing, the monumental credit debts or interest-only mortgaging that ranks Australian households as some of the world’s most indebted, with a growing number of people vulnerable to financial catastrophe with even the slightest interest rate increase.
That is just the story in cold hard statistics.
Looking at statistics on a page doesn’t tell you the whole story or adequately take into account the human experience of JobKeeper and its cessation, or the inadequate JobSeeker payment, let alone the critical factors that impact our reality of life in Australia.
I put out a call on social media to Sydneysiders and business owners asking them to share their experiences and tell me what the slash in benefits means to them. I was inundated with private messages – brave and honest outpourings – from people desperate to break the silence on their experience.
All up, there were 27 respondents. Around half the experiences shared were what you would expect; tales of hardship, financial struggle and pressure. Stories of experiencing stress but still managing to keep their head above the tide of financial pressure and survival demands. The ‘lucky’ ones are those who have partners, friends and or family able to provide support and care.
The other half of the experiences shocked me entirely: silent shame, real desperation, hopelessness and – in some cases – homelessness are the untold story behind benefit cuts and unemployment.
Most of us would consider homelessness a possibility which exists in the future, following cuts to social security. But I was alarmed when some respondents told me that they were already homeless and had been as far back as the middle of last year. This includes people who were couch surfing, business owners who had to give up their homes and were living and sleeping in their businesses, and several accounts of people living in their cars. There was even an account of a family of three, living in a friend’s garage for two months.
The most common reason given for homelessness was the inability to pay rent, resulting in eviction by landlords – a common occurrence despite government imposed moratorium on evictions until Sunday. Accumulating debt was also a common factor that many feel keeps them trapped and struggling. Some people told me they made the choice to cut their losses and do it tough until they could get finances sorted and find affordable accommodation. Some still had jobs, and others didn’t.
For some, homelessness was seen as a temporary measure until they found employment, affordable accomodation or regained financial stability to improve their circumstances. But for six of those who contacted me, living out of their cars was an ongoing reality and the only option besides the street. Some have so little money, they trade personal possessions or services for food on social media market places. They recount that while living in their cars they’ve discovered entire hidden communities of displaced professional people doing the same thing. Many of them seemed to have jobs, getting up each day, putting on a suit and a brave face and going into work like normal.
Most respondents who owned their own businesses, while deeply disheartened and financially stretched beyond their limits, reflected that they wouldn’t be homeless but feared for their future employment prospects. They mourned the horror of decisions forced by economic circumstances and Covid impacts, to systematically terminate staff and wind down their business.
Two respondents, in particular, were inconsolable in sharing their pain of closing otherwise successful businesses, some of which had been going strong for decades and had within them an entire lifetime of professional and financial investment.
All of the business owners specifically named the difficult impacts, traumas and damages to their mental health in the unfolding processes, which they will take with them into a future dominated by ever growing uncertainty.
The common thread in respondent experiences is what I consider to be the most shocking: a spectrum of shame and stigmatisation so great that even in the most desperate circumstances they feel there is no choice but to put on a brave face, pretend that everything is normal and struggle in silence.
One quote I’ll share with you comes from Josh, a recently unemployed mid thirties professional who perfectly articulated the overwhelming sentiments common to every respondent: “To say I’m stressed is perhaps the biggest understatement. Terrified? I don’t think that even comes close. I’m terrified. I’m scared. I feel useless. And helpless. And inadequate. I feel humiliated. I feel embarrassed. I feel like a failure. I feel guilty. I have no idea what I will do, and despite all these financial and utility companies talking about providing assistance and relief to those doing it tough – they don’t actually follow through or offer anything that would make an impact or bring financial relief. I genuinely see no possible way of climbing out of this pit that I find myself in. My mental health is pretty much non-existent at this point. I’m a very rational person, but I also understand how people resort to self-harm as means of escaping and making all the pain stop.“
There are entire sections of our society invisible to statistics, and policy coverage. They are living in desperation, despair and hopelessness, hidden from being counted because of deep shame and fear masked with a brave face. That by far has been the most shocking and compelling discovery – that people amongst us carry so much shame, fear and social stigmatisation, that they feel their only option is to suffer and struggle for survival in silence. Respondents feel that expressing hardship makes them weak, vulnerable and a potential pariah. They feel there is no safe channel to discuss these circumstances. There comes a point where there is no safety net or policy to catch you.
The paragraphs above are a summary of the experiences and realities of just 27 respondents. Contained within them are significant insights that point to the possible social and economic impacts ahead for us. They reveal something that for the large part, isn’t measurable, considered or taken into account in the rather cold statistics or reflected in the majority of news reporting on the state of the economy.
According to the Secretary of the Treasury, the estimate of 150,000 people losing their jobs when benefits are cut is a ‘bump’ in the economic road.
The coming weeks, months and years after JobKeeper ends (and other significant changes I’ve mentioned) will be the real litmus test for the government’s Covid economic recovery policies and management.
Travis de Jonk is the features editor of the Sydney Sentinel.