EVERY person approaching a Bendigo welfare service for emergency relief last financial year was on government benefits, Uniting Vic.Tas has revealed as it urges politicians to raise Newstart.
Newstart is less than half the minimum wage and Uniting Vic.Tas will give testimony on income payments in front of a Senate committee hearing today.
The group is witnessing a rising need for emergency relief including in Bendigo and Kangaroo Flat, it has told the committee in a submission ahead of the hearings.
"Every day we see evidence that Newstart, Youth Allowance and related payments are inadequate to cover basic living costs," Uniting Vic.Tas wrote.
All 1707 people seeking emergency relief at its premises in Forest Street last financial year relied on benefits. Thirty-two per cent of them were on Newstart, 11 per cent received Family Payments, eight per cent Parenting Support and two per cent were on Youth Allowance.
Uniting Vic.Tas wants a "bare minimum" $75 rise in Newstart, Youth Allowance and related payments.
It has called for a raft of changes including indexing payments to keep pace with community standards, increasing Commonwealth Rent Assistance by 30 per cent for some people and the abolition of "paternalistic" conditions like cashless debit and compulsory income management.
"While income support payments have stayed relatively the same since 1994, the cost of living had dramatically increased for all Australians, including the cost of rent, groceries, energy bills, healthcare, transport, childcare and other essentials," the submission stated.
Overall, the 1707 people relying on monthly donations from Forest Street had 6405 presentations, behind Ringwood's 11,000 but outpacing Prahran's Broadmeadow's, St Albans', Sunshine's and Kangaroo Flat's, according to a snapshot provided in the submission.
Sector warns payments too low
Uniting Vic.Tas is not the only group helping more people doing it tough.
The largest number of people approaching Bendigo Foodshare are employed but cannot get enough hours to make ends meet, board chair Cathie Steele said.
Yet her service was also seeing the effects of low government payments like Newstart.
"It's got to be a survivable wage and with rents the way they are that can be very, very difficult," Ms Steele said.
"The cost of living is rising and there can be added costs that make it harder.
"Take those with kids: if they are at school they have got to have the internet. It's not like earlier in my day when you could go without making a phone call to save money."
Bendigo Foodshare earlier this year revealed it was helping 12,400 people a week, Ms Steele said. That was a rise from 8800 people in 2018.
The group is part of the Bendigo Raise the Rate Alliance, which includes nine Bendigo welfare groups like Haven; Home, Safe, Bendigo Family and Financial Services and the Salvation Army.
The alliance was launched in September, with a number of women nearing retirement age shared their stories of the struggle to find work.
"It offends me deeply that media propaganda wants us to believe that people on Newstart are drug addicts and dole bludgers who refuse to work for a living," 61-year-old Bendigo woman Sharron Jamison said at the launch event.
"I'm an educated woman with tertiary qualifications previously employed in the teaching industry."
Ms Jamison is not alone. About one in four Newstart recipients is over 55-years-of-age and a job seeker, according to the Australian Council of Social Services.
Nearly 45 per cent of people approaching Uniting Vic.Tas volunteers at Forest Street are between 36- and 45-years-old.
Struggle to get by
Uniting Vic.Tas clients show "extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness" as they manage tight budgets, the service's submission to the Senate committee stated.
"People reported that getting by on Newstart relied on specials, second-hand goods, shopping at discount stores or relying on charity services (if they were able to access them without too much paperwork)," it read.
Ninety-four per cent of those seeking United Vic.Tas emergency relief in Bendigo needed food. The same was true for 98 per cent of people in Kangaroo Flat.
Volunteers are expecting a surge in demand as the festive season looms, emergency relief leader Julie Roberts said.
"It's always busier over Christmas. People are realising that the holiday is coming up quickly," she said.
The group takes donations, supplemented by food they buy in.
Uniting Vic.Tas 'should not need' to have Christmas food campaigns
Uniting Vic.Tas earlier this month launched its Food for Families Christmas food drive for those in need.
CEO Bronwyn Pike said 70 tonnes of food would be needed.
"Making sure people aren't going hungry is crucial at any time of year, but it becomes even more poignant at Christmas," she said.
"Imagine if this was the last year we needed to run the Food For Families campaign - this should be the goal. We shouldn't have this level of ongoing need in a country with the wealth of Australia."
"It's time to realise that many factors contribute to disadvantage and hardship. Any of us could find ourselves in that situation, through something like ill-health, unemployment or family breakdown."
The Christmas drive has been running since 1994 - the last year there was a payment rise that was not merely an adjustment for CPI.
It's got to be a survivable wage and with rents the way they are that can be very, very difficult.Cathie Steele, Bendigo Foodshare board chair
Those twice yearly adjustments have been used by successive governments and are a widely used measure related to the cost of living, a spokesperson for families and social services minister Anne Ruston said.
"No one is saying it's easy to get by without a job which is why the Morrison government is committed to supporting Australians to get off welfare and into work," they said.
"We are delivering results with more than 1.4 million jobs being created since we were elected.
"The government is providing more than $200 million to assist community organisations deliver emergency relief to 30 June 2023. It helps acts as a safety net for people experiencing financial distress or hardship."
Yet Uniting Vic.Tas believes raising Newstart, Youth Allowance and related payments would be the single most effective step to reduce Australian poverty.
For more information about the Food for Families campaign, or to donate, visit www.foodforfamilies.org.au
Have you signed up to the Bendigo Advertiser's daily newsletter and breaking news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in central Victoria.