‘I eat one meal a day’: What it’s like to survive on Newstart

Marie Usher, who volunteers with Guide Dogs to meet her mutual obligations, says she has lives on about $20 per day.

Marie Usher, who volunteers with Guide Dogs to meet her mutual obligations, says she has lives on about $20 per day. Photo: Supplied

A 59-year-old Adelaide woman has told how she lives on just $20 a day and can barely afford to feed herself on the dole, as business leaders join the push for an urgent increase to unemployment benefits.

“I never eat more than one meal a day,” Marie Usher told The New Daily.

“Pretty basic meals. From Aldi usually, that’s my supermarket of choice.”

Liberal MP Julia Banks sparked outrage in recent days by claiming she could live on $40 a day, the current rate of Newstart. For Ms Usher, the magic number is just $20, after rent and bills.

“You know you can’t use the car because the fuel light’s on. You can’t buy a 75c bottle of soft drink. You’re just screwed.”

Ms Usher, from the Adelaide suburb of Goodwood, has survived on the Newstart allowance of $545.80 a fortnight for about 12 months, after four years on a carer’s payment looking after her father with prostate cancer and her mother with dementia.

Julia Banks was accused of being out of touch for saying she could live on $40 a day. Photo: AAP

She lives in public housing and has struggled to find work because of her age.

Living on Newstart meant “a lot of time standing in front of the pantry thinking, ‘S—t, there’s nothing to eat’,” she said.

Ms Usher, who is divorced and has no superannuation, spent most of her life working in small businesses owned with her ex-husband.

Last week, she was forced to huddle in bed in the middle of the afternoon because she couldn’t afford heating.

She wants Newstart brought up to the poverty line, a $150-per-week increase.

“That would make a huge difference. To be able to go out, to be able to socialise, to see your children, to have a Christmas dinner,” she said.

“They [politicians] don’t understand what it’s like to go without. We’re not dead yet and we’ve got a long time to go.”

Business groups call for increase

Leading Australian economist Chris Richardson sparked a national debate over the rate of Newstart in recent days when he advocated an increase of $50 a week.

Business, unions and welfare groups have united in support for an increase, but the government is expected to ignore them when it hands down this year’s federal budget on Tuesday night.

On Sunday, the Council of Small Business (COSBOA) became the latest employer group to join calls for an increase.

“My experience is the great majority of people who are on Newstart are looking for work. There are not that many bludgers out there as people like to talk about,” COSBOA chief executive Peter Strong told The New Daily.

“We still have this ideology that if someone doesn’t have a lot of money they’ll be forced to get a job.

“But increasing it isn’t going to make them stop looking for work.”

Earlier on Sunday, Australian Industry Group CEO Innes Willox said he “wouldn’t even want to think about living on $40 a day”.

“I think any rational person would say that’s impossible given their circumstance,” he told the ABC.

The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) wants Newstart lifted by $75 per week, a proposal backed by the Greens.

Labor decries the payment as “too low”, but would wait for a “root and branch” review before promising an increase.

Amid reports Bill Shorten will come under pressure over the issue at Labor’s national conference, the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU) last week launched a campaign titled ‘It’s Time’ to lobby the opposition for a firm commitment.

“It’s been 24 years since Newstart was increased in real terms,” AUWU president Owen Bennett told The New Daily.

“If you look at how much the cost of living has increased, you can see we’re in the midst of a crisis.”

‘Perverse’ incentive against part-time work

Ms Usher has not been “fussy” while searching for a job but her age and experience made finding employment difficult.

“I’ve tried everything: sales, administration, cleaning,” she told The New Daily.

“By the time they read your resume and look at your qualifications, they can pretty much work out you’re not a spring chicken. But I’m not past my use-by-date yet.”

As well as looking for work, Ms Usher volunteers for 15 hours a week at Guide Dogs Australia in line with Centrelink’s rules for people over 55.

“If you could get a job at my age, 30 hours a fortnight would be fabulous as paid income. But this is basically like Work For The Dole.”

Ms Usher said her rent in public housing would be increased if she did a few hours of paid casual work with Guide Dogs, meaning it was easier to simply volunteer.

Labor MP Ross Hart, who represents the Tasmanian seat of Bass, said that system was “perverse”.

“I have had a constituent see me who works part-time as a relief teacher, but also is a tenant in public housing,” Mr Hart told The New Daily.

“As soon as she receives more than two days’ work in a week her rental is increased to a commercial rate and her Centrelink payments are reduced, even if she is yet to receive payment for that work.”

Watch your inbox for The New Daily‘s special coverage of the federal budget on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning.

Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.