Friday, 4 January 2013

Could You Live on the Dole? And How?

In case you missed it, this week our Federal Families Minister, Jenny Macklin, stated that she could live on the dole. This has caused a massive amount of controversy in the media, with a Greens senator declaring that he will live on the dole for a week to experience the hardship of the unemployed, and calling on Macklin to do the same.

In one sense, this is a ridiculous question because if any given person loses his or her job and is forced to rely on welfare, of course they scrimp and struggle and get by. What's the other option - give up and let yourself starve to death? So who would honestly answer "no" to "could you live on the dole?"

That doesn't mean it would be in any way easy to live on the dole. What I'm sure of is that those of us with well paid jobs have no idea how hard it is to make ends meet on the dole (or Newstart Allowance, as it is officially titled). I doubt that a week is enough to understand how brutal that kind of existence would be. A year might be more appropriate.

The political furore over this issue started me thinking: what would I do if I lost my job and I had to live on the dole?

My reality:
My job is extremely secure, I have an emergency fund, and I live in a dual income household which means that if either Perfect Boyfriend or I became unemployed, the employed partner could support the other.

But let's imagine...
If I'm going to imagine a scenario in which I'm on the dole, I would also, for fairness, exclude my current fortunate situation in which I have a partner who could support me. So let's pretend I'm single, and renting (which I would be if I was single at this age).

According to the Human Services (formerly Centrelink) website, if I was unemployed my dole payment would be $492.60 a fortnight.

When I was renting my own tiny flat, I was paying $520 a fortnight rent.

So, obviously the very first thing I would do is break that imaginary lease and move in with a family member. Sure, it wouldn't be all that great to sleep on the floor of my brother's study, but it beats homelessness.

Next up: I would change the insurance on my car from comprehensive to third party only. This might seem like a strange next step, but because of my age and the relatively short time I've had my license, my insurance is stupidly expensive. It would represent something close to 15% of my income if I was on the dole. I love my car, but I accept that it's a convenient luxury rather than an absolute necessity, so I would change my insurance immediately and if the length of time I went without finding work stretched on, I would consider selling it.

I would sell my furniture, white goods and anything that could bring in some money - if for no other reason than because when you're flat broke, you can't pay to store your furniture!

What wouldn't I give up? I'd like to believe I'd be able to keep my private health insurance and mobile phone. In the scenario I've outlined, because I could live with a family member, I'd be able to afford to eat something other than two minute noodles, and to contribute to household bills. I would need to tighten the budget for food and ongoing bills, but I think it would be possible to get by.

But, wait: this imaginary world doesn't seem so bad?
Yep. That's my conclusion too. And do you know why this scenario is liveable, and not a world of horrors? Because I'm so freaking privileged. I have strong relationships with family members who have stable homes and would welcome me with open arms. That is pure luck. It's pure luck that I don't have a whole family of drug dealers, that my relatives aren't violent thugs, that they're alive. Not everyone is in this situation. Some people have no family at all, or a family so terrible that living on the streets looks like a better alternative to them. 

If I didn't have family to rely on, I would have to rent or pay a mortgage. Even if you share a house with as many people as possible in a crappy suburb, could you find a room for less than $100 a week in Perth?

Additionally, I'm healthy. If you had any kind of health problem, I imagine that it would be extremely difficult to find money for medical care on the dole. 

I don't have children. I do not know how any parent pays for school fees, uniforms, books etc while on the dole. The allowance goes up slightly if you have children, but not enough to cover the costs of the little tykes.

Shouldn't people on the dole just get jobs?
Sure, if I was on the dole I'd have a good chance of finding employment quickly. That's because I'm lucky enough to have been born into a literate family, lucky enough to have attended good public schools, lucky that I'm smart enough to get okay grades even with a stressful family situation and patchy attendance, lucky that my Dad pushed me to go to uni, lucky that said Dad supported me financially while I was at uni, lucky that I have an Aunt who told me to apply for graduate jobs... The list goes on.

Try to imagine being born into a family where nobody has ever had a job, and in fact, nobody can read and write. Try to imagine growing up in a family where your parents never enrolled you in school, or they enrolled you but failed to feed you breakfast beforehand or even keep food in the house, failed to take you to school, never encouraged you to go. Imagine growing up without ever learning to read and write well enough to complete the most basic school work. Imagine having nobody in your life who could provide you with information about how to better yourself, nobody who could teach you basic life skills. Imagine having never used the internet, or read a book.

How easy would it be to find a job then?

I am so very, very grateful for everything I have.


  1. It's one of those problems that just doesn't have a good solution.

    If you raise the amount we pay people while they are unemployed then we have to find that additional money from somewhere else - either by reducing government spending in another area or by raising new taxes.

    But it's also an amount that is pretty impossible to live on for any length of time.

    My position is that it's not designed to be an amount of money that supports your life the way you want to for ever and ever - it's just there as a safety net to get you into a new job. Which is totally idealistic and not how it is in reality, but what is the alternative?

    1. I guess what I find difficult about the system is that for the vast majority of people who are on it long term, they honestly don't have the basic life skills, let alone education, to find a job. And if you don't have any chance of getting a job, does it matter whether the payments are increased by $50 a week, or cut in half? You'll still be on the dole no matter what.

      An idea which I think could potentially help would be if everyone on the dole was required to attend classes in life skills. I'm talking the really basic stuff - like the fact that you should wash yourself and wear clean clothes everyday (including lessons on how to effectively wash your clothes in the laundry trough if you don't have access to a washing machine). Even skills that don't seem entirely job related, like how you open a bank account, interpret an official letter received in the mail, cook eggs on toast. Once these skills are mastered (or for the majority of job seekers who are already capable of living day to day life), how about mandatory volunteering in community organisations so that people learn how to talk to others in the workplace etc, with the option to then go into (paid) vocational training?

      It would be frustrating for those on the dole who already have basic skills, and I'm sure most people would find it condescending, but I don't see any other way to get people ready for the workforce. I guess we need to ask ourselves whether we're willing to be a nanny state to the extent of teaching people how to undertake day to day tasks.

      And of course, there will always be at least a few people who have job skills but would rather be on welfare. I know a few like that. And that's a problem I have no suggestions about how to fix.