Jenny Macklin triggered off a wave of debate yesterday, with her ill-conceived (and later denied) comments that she could in fact, survive living on $35 a day Newstart allowance. The debate has however, taken a strange turn. Many ALP supporters have lined up to support Macklin. "Well of course Newstart allowance is low", runs the consensus, "it's only meant to be a temporary measure whilst you look for other work, not to support you for the rest of your life". They, along with the LNP supporters whinging about dole bludgers - apparently Gillard and Swan have wrecked the economy whilst somehow sustaining a vibrant job market - seem oblivious to the reality of the job market these days.
As I posted when I finally found work, it's a tough job market out there right now. Really tough. With two professional qualifications, seven years experience in advertising and a year in community service, I applied for over a hundred jobs - willing to do filing, make coffee, anything - before I secured employment. I was desperate to work, and sure I only saw Newstart as temporary; trouble is, in those four months I was job seeking, we did not pay temporary rent, temporary bills, temporary grocery prices or transport costs. now, Newstart should not enable one to live a comfortable life. But can we raise it a little bit so it does not mean such grinding poverty? At least peg it to cost of living increases? You'd think so, but those who would describe themselves as social democrats are, to my amazement, opposed.
One thing unites those opposed to an increase in unemployment benefits, the smug belief that it can never happen to them. Everyone cites the unemployed individual they know who smokes cones all day, is always turning up with a new tattoo, and cheerfully admits they never want to work. They pass him on his front porch having the first beer of the day as they head to work and think, sure as hell they don't want him getting any more money. They don't face the reality that one day, they could in fact get to work and be told that the company has been bought out and the branch is closing. Or their job is being sent to an overseas call centre. Or the manager made a bad investment. Or the same government austerity that keeps dole payments low has seen their job go as well. The shock, the "now what" feeling - they think it can't happen to them. They're good people and work hard. Unemployment only happens to lazy, bad people - the undeserving poor. That's why someone who isn't working because of a bad back should receive more money than someone who isn't working because of a bad management decision.
Or they briefly imagine what it would be like to be unemployed and think "it won't last long. These unemployed people, they're too fussy. Job snobs. I'll do anything". What they don't realise is these unskilled jobs are the hardest to get, because everyone has the same idea; anyone can apply for them, so everyone does. The reality can mean months of casual work, short term positions, relying on Newstart in between - and not appearing on the unemployment figures in between. We have a "skills shortage". Check that word "skills". Unskilled jobs are harder to come by. And it's damn hard to acquire those skills amidst the brutal, grinding poverty of the dole. The idea seems to be thrown around that we have to keep unemployment benefits low as an incentive to look for work. By whom? Is there any evidence of this? Any studies that show $50 a week, say, is all that stands between "genuine" job seekers and the long term, and contented, unemployed? If that were the case, then logically raising Newstart would lead to a rise in wages - because employers would need to offer higher wages to compete with a more comfortable life on the dole.
Or maybe those who genuinely want to work will still want to work if the dole was slightly higher, and will face less humiliation and misery whilst they do so. Maybe the long term unemployed by choice will face the same issues they always have; no one seems to be very interested in doing anything to address structural, generational unemployment, beyond the current blame the victim mentality of keeping Newstart allowance so much lower than other government payments. Maybe we can start earlier, with school funding. Or disincentives to move jobs offshore, or banning companies from delivering CEO bonuses in the same financial year as mass layoffs. If we try all that, and it doesn't fix things, then let's agree to keep benefits so low. Because right now, insisting benefits have to be kept low to encourage job seekers seems like a poor excuse to kick people while they're down.