Transform income support to reduce youth homelessness
Opening remarks at the Youth Development Australia homelessness conference
We were part of the ‘A liveable income support model for young people‘ panel discussion hosted by the National Youth Homelessness Conference on 16 June 2021. Below are our opening remarks, and we will share the video of the session here once it’s available.
I'm joining you today from stolen Gadigal country. I pay respect to Elders past and present from across the continent. Sovereignty has not been ceded, and to this day colonial violence is being inflicted on First Peoples through our racist social security system.
When we have these conversations about income support, poverty and disadvantage we must place front of mind the fact that every single part of these systems disproportionately affects First Peoples. And young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander folks in particular are extremely vulnerable to the harm caused by the social security system, and at higher risk of homelessness.
I guess I'd like to start by saying something I hope is obvious, but that I think we often lose sight of when we're at conferences like these talking about the technical details of how we think we could solve a problem.
In one sense, fixing income support is very simple: social security should mean everyone has enough money to live regardless of their situation.
No conditionality, no discrimination based on who you live with, your visa status or occupation.
As I say often, our welfare system kills people. The “safety” net right now is creating and exacerbating mental ill health. These choices our governments have made are a contributing factor in suicide, because AIHW data shows there is a relationship between unemployment, financial stress and suicide rates. And we know young people are more at risk across all of these factors.
No matter what changes are made, until we have income support at least above the Henderson poverty line, or a new, more sophisticated measure of poverty, then we are not in an acceptable situation.
This conference has a narrow focus, and this session is supposed to be about a youth income support model.
But I think it's really fundamental that in the context of income support payments we don't see young people as a special case.
It's not cheaper to buy food when you're younger, it certainly isn't cheaper to rent just because of your age, all of the basic costs of living are the same. There are no special circumstances that make it somehow easier to get by on a poverty payment if you’re younger. We need an equitable system.
Right now there are 1.2 million people on an unemployment payment and less than half of those get rent assistance. 216,000 people on unemployment payments are under 25, and there are another 212,000 on student payments. So that’s a very large number of people depending on a poverty payment, about half of whom get no extra support for housing costs.
And none of this accounts for the people who can’t get access to a payment at all because they don’t have the right paperwork or are excluded by unfair eligibility criteria.
The system is too complex, and it’s designed this way to intentionally make it as difficult as possible to get the support you need, and to give the least amount of support possible to the fewest number of people. That’s a choice.
Most of you already know, but just in case there are some who don't, there are lots of different payments for people who need income support. For unemployed people the two main payments are JobSeeker or Youth Allowance. But Youth Allowance is also for students. There is age discrimination in both the payment rates and in the activities you’re forced to do to keep your payment.
There are so many different rates and rules, and you can just see from how I'm talking about it, the complexity, how intimidating it is, especially if you're a young person who's in a particularly vulnerable situation, it can be very overwhelming and difficult to navigate.
For those who can get it, the income support payment for young people who don’t live with their parents is about $256 a week, or 55% below the poverty line, which is currently $573 per week.
Before the pandemic about nine out of 10 people on these payments were regularly skipping meals, and it’s worse now because the poverty line increased so rapidly last year as the cost of essentials went up. The Anglicare rental affordability snapshot that came out in April showed that there were zero affordable rental properties in the country for people on Youth Allowance, and there were a total of 3 affordable rentals for people on the JobSeeker payment.
If you’re in an unsafe home then the payment rate or the parental income test or difficulty with the application process itself can trap you in that unsafe environment or force you into homelessness.
Some people become homeless because they can’t get an income support payment at all. But it’s also shameful that there are tens of thousands of people who are accessing the “safety net” who are homeless.
And although there are some exemptions, which are quite difficult to get, for the most part you still have to jump through all the hoops with pointless ‘mutual’ obligations activities, keeping in mind that you can be penalised for the most minor things, including if you just can’t make it to an appointment or someone decides you don’t look “presentable” enough. And when you’re living in poverty, and have an unacceptable housing situation or don’t have a home at all, then having to do these activities makes your life generally even harder, it just creates a self-perpetuating cycle of harm.
For folks who are homeless it’s very difficult to negotiate with someone at a job agency who is likely treating you pretty badly, or being able to sit on the phone to Centrelink to try and get an exemption from having to do these activities. And you have to know your rights in the first place to even think of trying.
There are so many ways in which the income support system needs to be transformed, not reformed but actually transformed, to make it accessible, to make it welcoming and genuinely supportive.
We're going to talk more next I think about the design of the income support system and payments and how that should work to reduce youth homelessness. As a starting point I would just say that Commonwealth Rent Assistance should be scrapped and replaced with a higher overall payment. There's just no part of the rent assistance scheme that is meeting needs now. It's divisive and it’s not adequate for anyone.
For a start, not everyone can get rent assistance. You have to already have been able to afford to get yourself into a housing situation where you qualify for it before you can even apply. And this isn't a real problem for young people in the 21st century, but if you have a mortgage, you can't access any housing assistance through your income support, but you can if you're renting. The fact that it's divisive, the fact that it is to some extent tied to rent, gives landlords a real opportunity to exploit it.
There are very few people who would find that getting the measly rent assistance payment actually helps cover the rent, particularly when you look at the amount of rent you need to be paying just in order to qualify for it. The average rent paid by a person on the youth unemployment payment who gets rent assistance is $170 a week, but the average amount of rent assistance is only $45 a week.
I think that we all have to reflect on how low our ambitions have been for so long now, and that progress hasn’t been made, we’ve gone backwards. We need to be aggressively calling for urgent and dramatic change. The situation now is unacceptable, it can be solved but incrementalism won’t do it.
We can make huge strides fairly quickly, without a great deal of complexity, and that will put us in a position to develop a deeper understanding of poverty in this country, what community-designed and community-led responses look like, and how we make sure that every person has access to a safe place to live that is not ghettoising us, that is not temporary shelter, that isn't a group home or a modular house,
so that we all have a place to live that makes us feel like we can participate fully in society.
We can and we should – and we proved last year that we can easily – lift everyone above the Henderson poverty line, overnight. It should be done straight away. But that's not the end solution that we need to be working towards, that's the first step. We need to put a floor underneath everyone so that we feel supported enough and have enough financial stress taken out of our lives so that all of us who are affected by these decisions can start to work together with civil society, with politicians, to create a system that's more sophisticated.
We need a really dramatic increase in public housing, we need to remove conditionality from public housing and income support, and until we do that there won’t be any way of structuring income support payments that doesn't ultimately create an opportunity for a landlord to extract wealth from the poorest people in society.
Thanks for having me and thanks everyone for coming along, I’m really looking forward to the conversation.
I’d also like to acknowledge I’m talking to you from unceded Gadigal and Wangal land in the inner west of Sydney. I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging and all First Nations people on the call today.
I also acknowledge that homelessness in First Nations communities has to be understood in the context of colonisation, dispossession and displacement from Country, and echo First Nations peoples’ calls for self-determination, justice and Treaty.
I’m going to talk a bit about the economy in this session, so I also think it’s important to note that, for tens of thousands of years prior to colonisation, a sustainable and egalitarian economy existed on this continent.
I thought I’d use this initial part of the session to do a bit of a broad analysis of the role housing plays in the persistence of poverty, homelessness and inequality in Australia, and the importance of both an unconditional, liveable basic income and universal services, including universal public housing. I’m going to try to do that in about 3 minutes.
We have a housing system in this country that actively impoverishes people for the benefit of investors and developers. Our housing system makes inequality worse, and the harm caused by the property and rental markets in Australia is the direct result of federal and state government policy choices.
Policies that give massive tax incentives to property investors like negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts encourage speculation in the market, driving up prices and either locking first home-buyers out of the market entirely or tempting them to over-leverage themselves.
We’ve got a catastrophic lack of public housing in this country, and as everyone here knows we’ve got a chronically underfunded homelessness services sector geared towards crisis responses rather than prevention and early intervention.
Our tenancy laws don’t guarantee security of tenure or rent control, and increasingly young people and people on low incomes are being locked into a lifetime of renting in a precarious, unfair private market. The situation in my home state, NSW, is particularly grim.
As housing affordability gets worse, the income support system makes young people’s lives even harder. Youth Allowance and rent assistance keep young people way below the poverty line, and independence tests withhold even that meagre support from young people who want to leave home but can’t. Mutual obligations are a degrading, demoralising waste of time.
We need all income support payments to be above the poverty line now. We need to remove conditions like activity tests and mutual obligations, independence tests, and partner tests, and ensure high quality free public education and training.
But that’s only part of it - without fundamental changes to the way our housing system operates, cash support payments for people on low incomes will keep just being cash transfers to private landlords. The root causes of housing poverty and precarity won’t be addressed. We need to rethink the way we do housing in this country.
We need to get rid of tax concessions for investors and other market interventions that inflate property prices. We need proper renters rights with security of tenure and rent control.
We need a massive investment and expansion in public housing to smash wait lists and make beautiful public housing a universally-accessible alternative to renting in the private market.
Universal public housing might sound like a radical idea, but it really isn’t.
The federal government has the fiscal capacity to do it, and to do it in a way that increases public wealth. The only thing standing in the way is ideology and political will.
Before last year we were told that poverty and homelessness were inevitable and governments were powerless to prevent them, and then almost overnight beds were found for rough sleepers, we had eviction bans in place, we had free childcare, and the Jobseeker payment was doubled to be above the poverty line.
All these things we were told were too expensive, were too hard, weren’t realistic, and then they happened overnight at the stroke of a pen.
The secret’s out – the persistence of poverty, homelessness and precarity are choices governments make.
As actors in civil society, organisers and activists, it’s our job to make sure people know that and don’t forget it, and to agitate for an economic system that actually works for everyone, not just the rich and powerful.
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