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Community Affairs References Committee
06/12/2022
The extent and nature of poverty in Australia

David, Private capacity

Isabelle, Private capacity

Mel, Private capacity

Rebecca, Private capacity

CHAIR: Thank you to the people that are going to be providing their personal statements. I will tell you when it has been five minutes each. We're not going to ask you any questions, so it's very much up to you to share with the committee what you would like to share. We've got four people, starting with Rebecca, then it will be David, Isabelle and Mel. Rebecca, I invite you to share some stuff with us.

Rebecca : Thank you, Senator Rice. I would like to firstly acknowledge the Turrbal and Jagera people, who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. I extend that respect to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that are here today as well. Today, I am going to mention privilege and luck several times because I personally find that I am in a position of privilege and luck to even be here and that I can speak on behalf of my own experience and the experiences of others that I have witnessed.

To start with, I was not raised in a wealthy family. We were a single-income family. My dad had a salary, but his income was mostly based on commission. There were times when our school uniforms were second- or third-hand. We very much bought big so that we could grow into them. But we still had the opportunity to go and experience certain things due to the support of our community and family. After I moved out of home, I moved into university accommodation that was nearly twice the amount of money that I was earning on Austudy at the time. So, to live in that accommodation, I needed the support of my family, and I was very privileged to have that support. Some of my friends at university didn't have that support behind them.

Because I was studying full-time, I did have some difficulties finding work. Obviously, the commitments that are required of studying meant that most employers weren't necessarily interested in hiring me or they wanted somebody who had a bit more flexibility and availability. That then compounded after I decided to leave university, because I'd had a three-year gap in my employment history. I would be applying for places, and the question I got a lot was, 'What have you been doing the last three years?' You say 'study' and they're like, 'And did you have a job during that time?'—'no'. What they didn't understand, because I didn't want to disclose to them, was I have several mental health conditions and things that impact my ability to work, study and function day to day that meant that I physically could not maintain part-time or full-time employment while studying. I don't know; there's this look that you get from people when you're like, 'I was studying,' and they're like, 'And you didn't work?' that is quite disheartening.

Also, during that time I was living in Armidale in New South Wales, which is a regional town, and at the time that I was living there the lack of support services was staggering. I went to a doctor asking for help about anxiety attacks I was having. I was living in university accommodation, and I was told, 'Just have lavender buds; they'll help with your anxiety.' That was the start of my experience of trying to get support from services so that I could try and function like I was seeing other people function.

Eventually I was able to get certain casual jobs here and there. They would last for about six months. Then they don't have the hours for you or they suddenly stop putting you on the roster, and you're left to go, 'I guess I'm back on Centrelink again.' The process of being on Centrelink long term—I know that people previously spoke, giving evidence, about the difficulties accessing, but when you're on it, the indignity of being on Centrelink and the hold that people have over you. Literally, if you miss a call for some reason—say you've run to the toilet, and in the five minutes that you've gone to the toilet, they've called you, in the hour period of time that they're supposed to call you—they cut off your payment. You try and get back onto them, then an hour later you're told, 'We'll reschedule the appointment, but you have to come in.' Then your payment is on hold until you're able to get there.

I for a very long time not only experienced financial stress from being on Centrelink but that led into the mental health issues I already experience. That just compounded them. I became severely anxious. It was difficult. I didn't want to go out, because it meant: 'That's going to be $5 on the bus there. It's going to be $5 on the way back. It's going to cost, say, $10 to do the thing. I guess I'll just stay home,' which isolates you from your community. It isolates you from your family. It meant that I couldn't go and visit my family in New South Wales more than maybe twice a year, if I was lucky.

Still, I had the privilege of the support of my family. They would check in with me every week to see how I was going. But the debts pile up. You don't want to have to ask them every week, 'Hey, can you please help me again?' because you want to be an adult. You want to be supporting yourself, and the fact that you can't, that you're on Centrelink and that that doesn't really cover everything was really difficult.

On top of that, I'm a very intelligent person, and I found it difficult to find information on support that was available for me. When I did find the information it was a waitlist of a minimum of six months, or it would be, 'We are not taking new people at this time.' I remember getting a mental health care plan. That was great. That was fine. Then I went to apply to get counselling services, and I was told that the next time that a counsellor could see me was in three months—and would I be okay until that point? Luckily, I had support around me. I knew several people whom that wasn't okay for, and they completed suicide. I've lost friends to that. I've lost friends to medical conditions where they couldn't afford to get all of the help they needed. I had a friend with terminal cancer who was told she wasn't eligible for the DSP, even though she had a 400-page document from the hospital and a specialist. They said she was capable of work, and she passed away still trying to appeal for the DSP.

Around that time I got a job in employment services. I was very fortunate and privileged to have become friends with one of my employment providers. She gave me a personal reference to a job that they were hiring for, and I got the job. I was lucky and privileged enough to have that connection, otherwise I probably wouldn't have even gotten through consideration. When I got that job, I wasn't really told about the services that were provided, beyond the six sessions you get with the EAP a year. I wasn't told about the high turnover. I wasn't told about the difficulties in staff retention.

But I thought I could make a difference in that job. I thought I could change people's lives and help make the system better. I was working there for three years, and stories and the people I saw in that role—I never considered myself as experiencing poverty until I started talking to these people, talking to employers, seeing the vast divide and seeing which side of the divide I fell on. I was like, 'Oh, I emphasise with these people.'

But some of my co-workers didn't, and they were people who came from families where there was wealth. They'd never had problems looking for work. They didn't have mental health issues, and they actively made it difficult for their customers. I had a co-worker who would deliberately hang up the phone after five rings. If they didn't answer within five rings, they would hang up the phone and mark that appointment as unattended. Due to the way that our service was connected to head office, you had to call head office to get in touch with us. So people would be trying to get in touch with her, this co-worker of mine, and they would be on the phone for two hours, desperately trying to get their payment reinstated.

I saw people who were experiencing houselessness. I saw people who were also experiencing mental ill health. I saw people from all walks of the spectrum and of life, and I saw people who had come out of prison who just wanted to make a change in their life. They were like, 'I don't want to be like that anymore,' and I saw the struggle they faced in just maintaining their payments, let alone getting to jobs. They talk about job readiness. If somebody doesn't have a fixed address, let alone a phone or clothes for an interview—the ability to get to an interview, let alone get to a job, working in employment services really opened my eyes to the difficulty of that process.

It's not just as easy as walking on down with your resume, handing it in with a smile, getting a call and starting work tomorrow. That's not real. People say, 'Why don't you just go and hand your resume in?' That doesn't happen anymore. If you hand your resume in on paper, most places of employment will just chuck it in the bin the second you turn around. They don't care. They want you to apply online or through their labyrinth of an application. The number of times I've literally had to go with people to an interview to make sure that they're not being exploited, that they're not being given wrong information or that they're not being gaslit—the experiences I've had are heartbreaking.

The reason I don't work in employment services anymore is that in the end I had a mental breakdown because of the things that I saw, the people that I tried to support and how difficult that was. I was in a position where it was my job to try and get these people support and employment and help them maintain it. I was a specialist, I was good at my job, and I still feel like I failed people because it was so difficult for them to get that help. I was actively making it easy for them to contact me, but then for me to try and get help for them was at times almost impossible. Then COVID hit, and that just compounded the issue.

If you don't start from a position of privilege or luck—people have talked previously today about intergenerational poverty, and I saw that when I was working in employment services. I saw people whose parents and grandparents have been on payments—their parents and grandparents have scraped by to help them—and they don't know anything else. They don't know the kinds of things that you need to wear for an interview, let alone how to build a resume or a cover letter. You're starting from nothing, and I think there needs to be a systemic change—not just in the amount of payments that people get, not just in the funding to community services; it needs to be a whole, systemic, holistic change. Something is very, very fundamentally wrong. Something is very fundamentally predatory and abusive in the system, and something needs to change so that you don't just need privilege and luck.

CHAIR: Thank you, Rebecca. I'm sorry to cut you off—

Rebecca : No, that's fine; that's all.

CHAIR: That was really powerful and valuable evidence, and if there is more that you feel that you'd like to share with us—if you did want to put in a submission—we would love to hear any further evidence you're able to give to the committee.

Rebecca : Of course. Thank you.

CHAIR: Okay. David, we've got next.

David : Thank you for the opportunity to talk today. My name is David. I was born into a family that awkwardly straddled the line of being lower middle class and poverty stricken. This meant receiving a novelty coloured flat tennis ball from Santa, and the few family holidays were courtesy of staying at accommodation owned by the church or a nun.

My family environment was not a healthy one, and I saw myself living rough at age 13. This was noticed by a teacher at school, and I was eventually put into foster care. When I was released from foster care, I ended up having my first suicide attempts. During my time in hospital, I had a treating nurse give me instructions on how to commit the act correctly. Due to the embarrassment, and my parents being unable or unwilling to continue paying for my education, I left home and found myself work.

After years in hospitality, I found myself a role as a retail store manager. Things were starting to improve immensely. I was being headhunted by a few other companies, including for a high-salary FMCG position and a career change option as an electrical engineer. Financially I was doing well, having recently purchased a new car, and I was finally able to apply for a mortgage. I was socially active, attending regular live music venues and clubs. I was an avid reef tank keeper and bushwalker, active member of the Demons supporter group and a regular gym junkie, and I had been invited to join the local indoor cricket team and football team.

However, in November 2003 that all changed. Driving home from the city after a night out, a man ran a red light and crashed into my car. I sustained over 43 fractures and an acquired brain injury, later found to be a peripheral vestibular dysfunction. My car insurance refused to pay on a technicality. I was in rehabilitation for eight years as both an inpatient and an outpatient. My work at the time made me sign a new contract which took away 80 per cent of my previous salary, in which my OT convinced me this was my best and only move.

Unable to support myself or my animals, I gave them up and started staying with assorted family members during my recovery. When I sought advice and support for job training, I was constantly denied. Eventually, I was permitted to seek assistance with the CRS, Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service. They told me, as I was in a wheelchair, the only position I was suited to was a cabinet-maker.

I rejected this premise, and, using the little money I had, I went back to adult education to secure my VCE in Melbourne. I accomplished that and moved to Adelaide, getting first class honours in a Bachelor of Science in animal science, made possible by access to student accommodation and a Commonwealth scholarship. I then moved to Queensland to undertake my PhD in veterinary microbiology, researching antimicrobial resistance—again, made possible by an APA and NAVTA's animal health scholarship. As is often the case, my PhD journey took longer than the three years of the scholarship. I picked up slack tutoring at campuses in Gatton and the city. These were only ever casual contracts, and eventually mine were not renewed when universities and schools started tightening their purse strings.

Struggling to make ends meet and with the stress of my complex PTSD and everything else, I was recommended by my GPs to go on the DSP. I needed to get my body and my head right. It was their hope that I might also be granted help from the NDIS for my mental health sessions, as well as pain management and some surgeries on my left knee. Whilst I possessed two certificates of serious injury, the entire lengthy process for the DSP was dehumanising, difficult, embarrassing and painful.

In the meantime, on JobSeeker and mutual obligations, I was sent to useless and demeaning employment providers. At one firm, when I asked if I should disclose details of my disabilities in the acceptance of a job interview form, my case manager screamed at me, 'Do you even want a fucking job?' So I didn't. Then I had an episode at work when I was forced to go home, and my request to use my point stick at work was denied. Another firm, Sarina Russo, told me in my first meeting, 'We don't get people like you in.' I'm still unsure about what they were referring to.

Finding employment privately has been just as challenging. I've had responses like, 'Your resume is very intimidating'—again, I'm not sure if that is code for, 'You are too old and disabled.' I've withdrawn four times in the past few years from doing my master's, due to poverty. I eventually started my own tutoring business to make ends meet. Even though I overestimated my potential income, well below the allowance, I'm actually worse off with the reduction of my DSP, especially now that schools have finished and my clients are on holidays, and of course there are holidays throughout the year.

After the floods in late February, I was drained of all my savings just trying to escape and survive the disaster. My real estate increased my rent twice in a matter of months. I tried desperately to find alternative accommodation. Despite my five-star rental rating, I was unsuccessful. Now, with my DSP alone, I am left with $177 for the fortnight after I pay rent. Of course, I can't do that all the time. I need to keep fuel in my car and money to pay for credit to contact prospective clients. I'm currently around five weeks in arrears; I'm just waiting for my eviction notice.

I swallowed my pride and sought assistance at Housing Queensland. The first time I tried, I was turned away due to the number of people requiring help. When I did get an appointment, I was given a very erudite observation: I don't earn enough money. I was told that I needed to go and find more clients and then get back to Housing Queensland so they could perhaps help me.

I've been working six days a week as a tutor, and I do one morning per week as a volunteer at the wildlife hospital and RSPCA. If I'm not working, I'm in bed. I'm exhausted, not only because I'm doing more than what I should be but because of the stress of everything else that most people take for granted. I'm forgetful, I'm fatigued, my diet is horrible, yet my GP wants me to take extra vitamins—with what, when I'm making the hard decisions between buying food or buying medicine? He also prescribed treatment for my chronic pain. I have not had a pain-free day in almost 20 years. I can't afford these treatments, so I'll never know if it would work. I no longer go out, I don't date, I don't socialise. I can't afford to. Also, I can't afford not to. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you—heartbreaking. Thank you so much for sharing that with us today, given your circumstances. Isabelle.

Isabelle : Good morning, senators. Thanks for dropping by. I am grateful for the opportunity to make a submission to you in person. It's structured around the terms of reference because if left alone, I'll wander too far—but I don't want to leave anything out. The secretariat is going to be in receipt of a script of my remarks. When I make claims of fact, some of those will have citations backing them up in the script.

Firstly, the terms of reference mention health outcomes. I have a congenital heart defect—aneurysm of sinus of valsalva. I got referred to public cardiology in May this year, then again in July. Both times I was supposed to be seen within one month. I got seen in November, so it took six months. If I could have gone private, it would have taken one month. The July referral was because I had to be sent to hospital because I had an abnormal electrical pattern that suddenly become cardiac arrest. Good thing it didn't in the remaining four months, because it would have been pretty unfortunate if it did. Mind you, I did have multiple occasions where my friends were screaming at me to go to hospital, and I just didn't, because I knew that the only outcome that I was going to get was another referral. I couldn't push the public system and I couldn't afford to go private, so I just figured that if God was going to reach out and stop my heart he'd better hurry himself up.

Secondly, the terms of reference also mention education outcomes. My degree is useless. I would like to reskill in something more useful, but then I would be on Austudy. JobSeeker is functionally nothing. Austudy is about 30 bucks a fortnight lower than functionally nothing, so that places it at about 51 per cent of the University of Melbourne's poverty line. Not only is my degree in underwater basket weaving but, as things stand, we're all paying for it to stay that way.

Moving on, thirdly, the big one, the terms of reference mention poverty among different demographics and communities. I'm trans. I'm sure this will come as a huge surprise. Every medication that I take is a hormone that cis people get from their bodies for free. On Medi-Cal, for example, which is the public health insurance system in California, where my partner is from, it would also be free—but not here. Also, courtesy of uneven PBS coverage, if the supply chain gets spicy, occasionally the unit price of oestrogen will jump by a factor of 10—from six bucks to 60, so that means that sometimes I get to play a surprise round of, 'Which day this fortnight will I not eat?' Cool game—it gets old real quick.

Moving on, so as not to bore anyone present with my work nonsense, I want a job. A pretty decent chunk of the jobs I'm qualified for demand your own transport. Now if I don't have my own transport, I can't just go applying for these jobs willy-nilly, because there's a non-zero risk that they're going to call on Centrelink and dob. As it happens, technically, I do have my own transport, a cute little 2010 Hyundai, an underpowered V4 and SUV body—big mover. It's got some wear and tear that needs fixing. It's not safe to drive, otherwise. On the 2020 rate of JobSeeker I could have fixed it; on the current rate the chance of that is approximately Buckley's. So it's sitting around collecting leaves and spiderwebs.

But, hey, let's say I make it to the interview. As a woman, I experience a little thing called appearance based employment discrimination. So, as a woman looking for a job, beauty is mandatory—from 'man date'—meaning that if the interviewer is a man and he reckons he wouldn't want to date me, I can pretty much kiss that job goodbye. Now because of this whole thing, I'm kind of behind the eight ball on that one because, no offence to anyone present, but broadly speaking—and this isn't a moral judgement—cis people have no idea.

What most people consciously know about transition boils down to the operation, because they never need to know anything else. As a result, there's this whole swathe of pretty foundational transition interventions that they just aren't really aware even exist. This is a problem, because if I walk in looking trans: 'Yeah, you sure? Maybe,' but if you walk in looking trans and poor, their first impression is going to be: 'There's a tranny who's not trying.' And nobody wants a worker who won't try. Is that stupid, ignorant, transphobic, transmisogynistic or unfair? Arguably, it's all those things, but I'm asking them to give me money, so like it or not, it's my problem. But I'm a long-term beneficiary of social security transfer payments from the Commonwealth, so that makes it your problem. In some places, the states would have realised that it's picking its own pocket and decided to cover things like beard removal or speech language pathology intervention to gender-normalise the voice, for the sake of economic pragmatism alone. But this is the lucky country, so we do things differently here!

I'll move beyond all that. Let's say I get a job right now. By the way, did I mention that I've actually got ADHD? I'm on a schedule 8 drug for that. That's a drug of dependence. Some GPs will co-prescribe those scripts; plenty won't. Either way, you need to get that regularly reviewed by a psychiatrist, and you'll be out of pocket a couple of hundred bucks. Then there's the little unspoken premium that you have to pay to get one who doesn't start from the presumption that you're either dealing or getting buzzed—because you know what us povos are like! If your prescriber does have that attitude, then you're much more likely to end up abruptly unmedicated, because maybe you dotted all your i's and crossed all your t's, but you didn't double-dot the 'i' in 'naive'. As you can imagine, the effects of that on productivity are pretty predictable.

Let's get back to the job. If you remember, I couldn't fix my heart while on JobSeeker; it's not fixed yet. What does that mean? It could be orthostatic intolerance, can't stand up for very long; low-cardiac index, can't bend over and had to work myself up for 20 minutes to put on these shoes; or transient idiopathic dysphasia—potentially secondary to cerebral hypoperfusion—which means that there's not enough blood getting to my brain, which might be why I occasionally lose the ability to communicate coherently for a couple of days at a time. So let's hope the money at this hypothetical job is really good and they really like me, because, without a really good private cardio, I'm going to be back on Seek very quickly. There's a little prompt here about how poverty has affected my social life. I don't know what that is! I looked it up; it looks pretty expensive, and I probably couldn't afford one anyway, so I'm just going to shuffle straight onto my closing remarks.

I haven't made an actual plan to kill myself since I came out and started transitioning 2½ years ago, but I have seen how this country treats poor people. I've been on the receiving end of it long enough to have had a gutful, and it regularly makes me think, 'Hey, maybe death might not be such a bad idea.' I was born in 1994, and the policy of the government—by which I mean every government in my lifetime—has been to break us down and then pay someone a hell of a lot of perfectly good taxpayer money to do nothing except tell us that you're going to starve us if we don't drag ourselves back up by our bootstraps. I've never been very good at crying; I've never been very good at processing my emotions that way. There was a short period where I did cry, but, on my budget, I don't have the water left to spend, so this is what you're getting instead.

Here are some policy suggestions, just for the sake of it. You could raise income support payments to the poverty line. We know this is possible because in 2020 we saw you do it. You could replace the existing Centrelink mutual obligation system with high-quality self-guided support, because, unlike the existing system, that might actually work. You could undertake to expand the PBS and reduce patient co-pays. Bulk-billing is just about dead, but you could resurrect that too, if you wanted. That's the thing, isn't it—'if you wanted'? It actually doesn't really seem like you do. Parliament could double income support, and the expenditure would be chump change. It would most likely pay for itself off the first-order economic effects alone. But you don't, and frankly that's a joke, and it's a cruel one. I suspect that means that somebody in Canberra is having a good old laugh about it.

Here's the crux of the issue. Poor people deserve health, wellbeing, opportunity, dignity and humanity, because that's what it boils down to. We have a right to autonomy and agency. We're still real people. Whatever you do to us, we're still as human as you are. I respectfully suggest that, when it comes time to finalise the report of this inquiry—both its findings and, more importantly, its recommendations—the committee has both an ethical and practical duty to recognise that and to ensure that it reflects it. Senators, thank you for your time.

CHAIR: Thank you so much, Isabelle. Now we're going to hear from Mel. Thank you, Mel, for presenting to us today.

Mel : I've prewritten something because I'm not very good at speaking off the bat. My name's Mel. I'm 32 years old, and I'm flat out doing my PhD in sociology, as well as working as a casual research assistant. My PhD topic looks at people's experiences of home and home making in residualised—that is, targeted and underinvested, undersupplied—social housing. I'm also on the disability support pension, which is something that I've concealed from other people in the past, due to the unrelenting judgement and stigma directed at people who receive government support. I've lived on what is now called JobKeeper as well as youth allowance, and my life was merely about survival, as I felt that I had no future, until I received a payment closer to the poverty line. I've also lived in social housing, public housing as a child and, more recently, community housing, which, while providing much needed stable accommodation, was a violent and degrading place due to residualisation or the systemic underinvestment and stringent targeting. I had some great neighbours, but also some that I feared. There were a lot of people with unmet support needs.

Rather than being the cause of social problems, social housing has been made the repository for the most disadvantaged and excluded tenants. Ideally, I would have stayed longer, given the volatility and unaffordability of private rentals, but the environment was too traumatising—it was actually re-traumatising me—and I had to leave. Plus, the stigma is real. Nobody will date you if you live there; there must be something wrong with you.

I moved into private rental accommodation as soon as I was awarded my PhD stipend. I thought I'd made it in life. Then two of my housemates figured out that I had trauma and came from a disadvantaged background and bullied me for it.

During COVID I had a succession of crap share houses with sexists and alcoholics and the like. During the COVID pandemic and lockdowns, the landlord where I was a lodger gained my trust and sexually assaulted me. I ended up having to take two years off my PhD due to the deterioration in my mental health. The public mental health system is so underinvested, and the community sector is so overstrained, it didn't really help me to recover. I had to do that by myself. I'm a little bit mortified about this going on the public record, but I'd like to thank the others who've given their statements, as well as people like Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame and countless other survivors for paving the way.

Over my life, I've made it from living on Newstart and Youth Allowances to living now having achieved the minimum wage. Wow. It's better than some people get, but it was hard to get here. Due to income testing on the pension, I only end up slightly better off. People with disabilities are underemployed, and this policy punishes us for working. I felt little motivation to work while I was unqualified. I've missed out on experiences and opportunities because of this. I feel like a failure because my resume is blank up until 2019. This policy hurts people on low wages the most. Working credits were increased for age pensioners but not for recipients of the DSP. This was all while a royal commission into disability was underway. Even more important would be to make sure that the people who cannot work, or can only work for limited amounts of time, have enough money to live on.

Meanwhile, Australia spends $30 billion a year on negative gearing, but in the latest budget they've only offered a paltry $1,224.7 million for social housing. We're also proceeding with the stage 3 tax cuts. Why does Australia reward people for being affluent but not allow poor people to improve their situation and then punish them for something they did not choose? I had to take time off after being sexually assaulted by my negatively geared, multi-property-owning landlord. Unstable housing has impeded my progress in life. Secure housing gives people better life chances. Underinvestment in public housing has negative consequences elsewhere, such as reduced productivity and increased health costs. Anthony Albanese always politicises the fact that he grew up in public housing, but now people are growing up in and living in emergency housing, tents, cars and state 'care' because the government won't build enough public housing. I haven't been able to achieve the basic milestones in life, such as getting my drivers licence—things people take for granted. I'm not to blame for my situation. Not everybody has a supportive family. I was in the child safety system, so I have to pay to get my drivers licence. Lacking those achievements makes me feel like a failure.

Politicians are worried about so-called welfare dependency, but when we actually try to do something the system crushes us. Attempting social mobility in Australia is like being Sisyphus. But I've found a good place to live for now and I'm in the unique position of having lived experience, and also trying to look for solutions. I'm determined to finish this damn PhD. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you so much, Mel, and I hope you absolutely do get it finished. Thank you to the four of you for presenting your evidence today. It was really powerful and incredibly important for the committee and for the country to hear. Having gone through presenting some personal stuff before us today, if you do want some support we've got Liz from Lifeline who is able to have a chat with people if they would like to. We really appreciate.

Proceedings suspended from 12 : 06 to 13 : 25
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