By Sean Malloy
At least 136,000 young people will be affected by changes to Austudy payments introduced by the ALP government in its August 17 budget. The government will legislate that "Austudy payments to at home students aged 17 now will be paid to the parent, rather than directly to the student". These payments will be administered by the Department of Social Security through the Family Payments Scheme.
Spending on this area will be reduced over the next three years, from $1.745 billion in 1993-1994 to $1.530 billion in 1996-1997. Not only will the payment be made not to the student but to the family, it will be reduced from $129.80 a fortnight to $121.60 a fortnight. $60.80 a week, almost $140 below the poverty line.
Those who work closely with young people, and young people themselves, see taking Austudy out of the hands of young people as a step backward for young people's welfare.
Anna Drews, a 16 year-old high school student told Green Left Weekly she believes the government is out of touch with the needs of young people.
"The government's concern is simply the market", she said. "What they are revealing is their lack of interest in the survival of young people today."
Drews, a member of the radical youth organisation Resistance, accuses the government of doubling the pressure on young people, first by failing to create jobs and second by reducing the avenues for financial assistance.
Originally, the ALP's motive for introducing Austudy for secondary students was to increase retention rates in final years. However massive unemployment due to the recession has forced thousands of young people to remain in education, removing the need for the Austudy "incentive". But while young people don't currently need an "incentive" to remain at school they do need to survive.
Joe Magri, from Young Christian Workers, says that the changes are "condemning young people to poverty".
"Abolishing Austudy will force people to go to desperate measures", he told Green Left Weekly. "They will either be exploited at work or be forced to go on the streets, to live any way they can.
"No young person, no person, should live in poverty. Company tax and the like should be increased to allow all people in our society to live above the poverty line", he said.
Colin Vincent of Jaapalpa, an Aboriginal youth bailhouse, said that close to 50% of the young people he worked with would be affected adversely by the changes.
Vincent believes there needs to be an incentive for aboriginal youth to go back to school and to continue their classes. "Austudy is a great incentive for them", he says. "Cutting Austudy is a way of saying 'we don't care if you go back to school or not'. Without that incentive more than likely they will not go back, because school work and books go hand in hand together, and if you cut off money to buy your books then there is not much point in going to school."
Vincent says these cuts come at a time when many families in the Aboriginal community are experiencing financial difficulty. Despite the community's culture of sharing, cutting Austudy puts further stress on family resources.
Ross O'Donovan, from the Glebe Youth Centre, says there will be less young people able to continue their education if they don't have financial support from parents.
"There are going to be more young people not at school, which in turn means there are going to be more young people that we are going to have to service," O'Donovan told Green Left.
"The effect on homeless people and young people from broken families will be similar for those at home. There will not be the financial support for them to study. So even if they might be coping with a broken home, or living on the streets, they will not be able to cope with the extra pressure of having to find money to afford to go to school."
O'Donovan believes less young people on the streets will be able to study and this will lead to an increase in juvenile crime and detention. He also objects to payments being made to the family.
"These young people can't operate through their family", he said, "That's why they leave. They have to be supported by Austudy independently of the family. Some families take the Austudy and don't support their child with that money."
Rather than having young people end up in detention centres or on the streets O'Donovan argues that the government should be lifting the current freeze on funding for youth centres and that payments should be supported rather than cut.