Meagre Jobseeker rise will do little to help those struggling with unemployment

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Taken at face value, the biggest one-off increase in the JobSeeker allowance for more than 30 years should be welcomed. At an estimated cost of about $9 billion over the forward estimates, it’s not an insubstantial commitment.

That both sides of politics had for so long ignored the financial plight of the unemployed was a testament to the reality that ideology was never the principle obstacle, but the political calculation that few votes were ever going to be swayed over the issue.

The government has lifted the JobSeeker rate by $25 a week. Credit:Jason South

The Coalition found itself boxed in by pressure from a growing number of experts and groups from all sides of the political spectrum to lift the rate. Having put in place a generous supplement to JobSeeker at the start of the pandemic, it also baulked at the unpalatable prospect of removing it completely.

That is not to say the Coalition did not play hardball. With the meagre carrot of a $25-a-week increase came plenty of stick. A new hotline allowing employers to dob in unemployed people refusing work will be set up under the changes and there will be additional obligations on welfare recipients, including 20 job searches a month required from July 1.

Such a crackdown should hardly be surprising. Unemployment benefits have long been portrayed in Australia not as an essential support mechanism to assist people transition from one job to the next, but as a potential incentive for so-called “slackers” to live off government welfare.

In June last year, speaking on Sydney radio with Ray Hadley, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was happy to play up the stereotype: “What we have to be worried about now is that we can’t allow the JobSeeker payment to become an impediment to people … going doing work, getting extra shifts.”

The figures tell another story.

While the latest unemployment figures for January were encouraging, dropping by nearly 4 per cent, there were still 877,600 people unemployed. On top of that, more than 1 million were underemployed, meaning they would work more hours if they could. And that does not include those who have given up hope of finding work and dropped out of the jobs market.

Match that with the January ANZ jobs data, which shows there were 161,582 advertisements for new positions. It’s not hard to do the maths that there are many times more people looking for work than positions that need to be filled.

It’s a glaring gap, and should give pause to anyone who thinks finding a job is only dependent on effort. For many people, there is simply no work to be had.

The data is also showing that despite the economy showing signs of recovery, the number of people who have fallen into long-term unemployment is on the rise. That is a troubling new trend with real consequences.

Reserve Bank research published last month showed one in seven of those out of work for a year or more went without meals because of a shortage of money. One in 10 was unable to heat their house. An increase of about $3.50 a day is barely going to make a dent in those figures.

While the Coalition did raise the rate, it has fallen well short of offering much respite for those seeking work while living below the $470-a-week poverty line. There may not be votes in raising the rate even further, but that should not stop the government doing the right thing by almost a million Australians.

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