Zac Svendses has about eight weeks left before he runs out of money. The 25-year old banker lost his job at Westpac more than a month ago when his entire department in Adelaide was made redundant. He moved to Sydney and has been living off the federal Newstart allowance while he tries to find work.
“I was a temp, so I didn’t get a [redundancy] package or anything,” he said. “If I don’t pick up work soon, it’s going to be really hard.”
Mr Svendses receives $456.30 a fortnight from the Newstart payment – slightly less than the single payment because he has a defacto partner. He lives above a shop on Newtown’s King St with seven others, and pays rent of $360 a fortnight. After accounting for bills, he is left with $30.65 a week for living expenses. As a result, he has had to reach into his savings, but knows they won’t last very much longer.
The Federal Government is under pressure to increase the Newstart allowance, and there is speculation that recently-returned Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will move to do so. As a backbencher in January he said the government should “show a bit of heart and do more”, after Minister for Families Jenny Macklin told reporters she felt she could live on Newstart’s $35 a day.
And Melissa Parke, a new member of the ministry after Mr Rudd’s return, said in a radio interview that the payment was “deficient” and that she hopes the issue is revisited.
High rents in Sydney’s inner west make it a particularly tough place to live for people on the Newstart allowance. This week The Inner West Independent spoke with a number of locals on various government payments, and all cited rent as a debilitating expense. Mr Svendses said a payment increase for people in states where property is more expensive would be a good start.
“My rent in Sydney is so much more than in Adelaide – it takes up a large portion of my Centrelink payment,” he said. “I can see how it will become a problem once my savings are gone.”
Mr Svendses recognises he is not nearly as disadvantaged as many receiving the payment – he has suits to wear to job interviews, and a partner he can rely on if necessary. He understands that the government uses Newstart to encourage people to find work, and hopes that he “won’t be on it for much longer”.
The allowance requires recipients to demonstrate they are actively looking for work. Mr Svendses has had to broaden his search beyond the finance industry to restaurant and bar jobs.
“I don’t mind because at the moment it’s getting kind of critical,” he said. “I just need something.”
Across the country, around 330,000 people receive the Newstart allowance, and more than half have been on it for longer than 12 months.
The current single-person Newstart rate of $247 a week is well below the poverty line. The Greens, welfare groups and many business groups are agreed it should increase.
A spokesperson for the Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese gave no hint on when a decision might be expected, saying only: “Budget decisions are announced on budget night.”
Leichhardt resident Nicola, 55, is on the disability pension and says he “just manages” to cover his expenses week to week.
“I can’t really afford to take a woman out or ask a woman out,” he said. “It’s not enough for that.”
Nicola claims he knew a young woman in the Leichhardt area who was struggling to make ends meet on the Newstart allowance and took her own life.
“I used to give her money all the time to help her out,” he said. “How do you survive and do things on that amount of money? You can’t survive, not if you’re on your own.”