People on low-income, community workers and members of the public gathered at Clayton Wesley Uniting Church in Beulah Park on October 21 and 22 for the “Power To The Poor – Silent No More” conference.
The conference was part of this year's Anti-Poverty Week. It highlighted the experiences of welfare recipients dealing with unemployment, poverty and punitive government policy, and explored opportunities for fighting back.
The event, which attracted 100 attendees on day one and 70 on day two, was organised by Anti-Poverty Network SA (APN), a grassroots group of people receiving government payments including jobseekers, sole parents, carers, students and aged and disability pensioners.
Workshops at the conference, which covered issues such as disability pensioners rights, mental health, unemployment, Work For The Dole, homelessness, job agencies, sole parents, climate change and poverty, and dealing with Centrelink when suffering from health issues, reflected a recurring theme: “with us, not to us”.
Welfare recipients have every right to be part of debates about the policies that impact their lives — and their first-hand knowledge and insights should not only be listened to, but should guide debates.
The opening session, “Stories from below the poverty line”, featured first-time speakers from APN talking about their struggles. Tracey, an older unemployed person, spoke about the judgemental, unhelpful remarks she has received from family and friends: “You're intelligent, why can't you get a job?”; and community workers: “How is it you can afford to feed your cats, and not pay your power bill?”, “You must spend plenty of time sleeping in front of the TV”. She also spoke about the reality of having to skip breakfast every day.
Wendy, another older unemployed person, spoke about how quickly her situation unravelled: when the company she worked for shut down, she was made redundant and went from being in a relatively well-paid, high-skilled, technical job to being unemployed, then evicted, then dealing with a long bout of homelessness, then a long bout of having to go without power to make ends meet.
Heather, a transwoman, spoke about the repeated harassment she faced from her job agency, including their consistent misgendering of her – despite multiple complaints and attempts to correct them.
Others spoke about the isolation of being on income support: the limited mobility; being unable to spend as much time with family and friends and engaged in community activities as they would like; and the health issues they neglected due to lack of funds, like dental work.
There were also tales of resilience and of the comfort that comes from being part of a supportive, non-judgmental community of people on low income, like that offered by APN.
Another recurring theme of the conference was the need to redefine poverty and unemployment as the product of structural and policy factors rather than individual flaws and weaknesses, as governments and the media routinely imply.
Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) president Owen Bennett noted that the ratio of job vacancies to jobseekers has stretched out to an abysmal 1 to 19. According to the Department of Employment, there are currently 167,000 job vacancies and 713,300 unemployed people, 1,100,100 underemployed people and 1,340,000 “hidden unemployed” who are not considered part of the workforce but are still looking for work. Combined they make up roughly three million jobseekers.
Despite this clear evidence, governments never admit that the essence of the problem is a sheer lack of jobs, not lazy, incompetent jobseekers because admitting this would mean having to relent on implementing punishing, unpleasant schemes like Work For The Dole and Compulsory Income Management, and having to raise welfare payments (particularly Newstart, which has not been raised in real terms for 22 years).
The truth is that, while the under supply of jobs is a problem for those searching for work, a shortage of jobs is incredibly useful for the business community. A sizeable pool of jobseekers desperately competing over a small number of vacancies helps put downward pressure on wages and discourages low-income, insecure workers from being too assertive about their rights and conditions, since they can often be easily and quickly replaced.
The massive lack of jobs is changing the nature of unemployment into an increasingly long-term phenomenon. Newstart, designed as a short-term payment, often cannot emotionally, physically and socially sustain those forced to rely on it for countless months — if not longer.
The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) Poverty Report released at the start of Anti-Poverty Week, painted a grim picture: 1 in 7 adults and 1 in 6 children live in poverty, and among welfare recipients, 36% live in poverty – including 55% of Newstart recipients, 52% of Parenting Payment recipients, and 36% of Disability Pensioners.
But there is hope, as Dr Cassandra Goldie from ACOSS noted in her conference speech. Public attitudes have started to shift and sympathy for those receiving Centrelink payments is rising as more and more people directly experience the realities of a hostile labour market and an inadequate, onerous safety-net.
Moreover, there is a growing backlash from below against government attacks: low-income activists from four states – South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland - and a range of community groups – AUWU, Australian United Sole Parents Network, Fair Go For Pensioners, Willing Older Workers and APN – came together in Adelaide, making this year's Anti-Poverty Week conference a historic grassroots gathering.
[Pas Forgione is a co-ordinator of Anti-Poverty Network SA.]