If You’re Young, Rural And Unemployed, Joe Hockey Has Just Consigned You To His New Underclass

A lot of people copped it in the 2014 Budget, but few got a rougher deal than unemployed young people from rural areas.

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Us yoofs are a terrible bunch: We always have our hand out, asking for more. We like accessible education, and we don’t like working for free. After Tuesday’s Budget announcement, we can add disliking the prospect of homelessness to Gen Y’s long list of entitled traits. Apparently, we are asking for a lot.

The list of recent budgetary measures I could take issue with is bottomless. But among all the groups disadvantaged by the Abbott government’s first budget — students, creatives, the disabled, single parents, the elderly, Indigenous communities, and basically anyone who isn’t a school chaplain or a road — there’s another group that we so often fail: the rural and regional youth of Australia.

Set to begin on January 1, 2015, the upcoming overhaul of Newstart payments leaves those under 30 with a six-month waiting period before they can receive welfare. And even then, the new Work For The Dole scheme means that these pensioners will be working for $8–12 per hour — until they’re again cut off after six months. What’s more, The Guardian yesterday revealed that failure to attend Centrelink appointments and mandatory jobseeker activities will see prospective welfare recipients punished with a further two-month delay to their payments. This measure will disproportionately punish jobseekers in remote areas with limited access to services.

You probably aren’t shocked to learn that young Australians have been more than a bit rooted by the newly announced budget, but according to Professor Peter Whiteford and PhD candidate Daniel Nethery, young Australians with low incomes are the worst off of all. In their recent report, Whiteford and Nethery found that unemployed 23 year-olds would face an 18% reduction of income, the largest proportional loss of any group. Those with an income greater than $250,000, on the other hand, will lose a meagre 0.9% under the proposed budget.

But where are the rural and regional kids — forced to relocate to metropolitan cities to further their education and employment opportunities — left in all this?

The Difficult Path To Tertiary Education

Making it to university is tough for those raised in rural and regional towns. To start with, they have fewer cultural, educational and technological resources through their formative years. Some might not have libraries, bookshops, galleries, or internet coverage, and most have a public education system with lagging support (Gonski, anyone?). Their opportunities simply aren’t equal to those who grow up in urban centres. If they do beat the odds, they’re forced to relocate — requiring a level of savings and support that some simply cannot muster.

For those who can move, they then have no family home to fall back on in times of need. Their only shelter is the room they rent. If, for whatever reason, they can’t walk straight into employment, Centrelink has been their one ticket out of homelessness. If these reforms pass through the Senate, though, there will be nothing.

The Persistence Of The ‘Bludger’ Myth

When grilled in question time by Cathy McGowan on how Newstart reforms would affect such people, Treasurer Joe Hockey responded that the effects “weighed heavily on our deliberations”. But when asked by ABC radio how he’d cope under tough new ‘Earn or Learn’ requirements, Hockey responded, “I would expect to be in a job — that would be my starting point.” It’s all too easy to think of dole bludgers as, well, bludgers, and it’s easy to think that getting a job is easy — if you already have one. But is it really so easy?

Like many, I’ll be finishing my studies as the holiday period kicks in, precisely when nobody is looking to hire full- or even part-time employees. And though I hoped to never depend on dole payments, securing employment takes time — it might even take six months. In February of this year, the ABS estimated there were 140,000 job vacancies across Australia, while Hockey’s own figures stated that unemployed Australians make up 700,000 of our population. Yes, 700,000 job seekers and only 140,000 jobs. Joe, we have a problem. One would assume that the Treasurer of our nation has a calculator at his desk, but it seems he does not. We’re told that Australia needs us to Earn or Learn., but clearly there are insufficient places for us to earn. And let’s not forget that Australia was recently dubbed the most expensive country in the G20 — outranking Switzerland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden — with Sydney being the fifth most expensive city in the world, and Melbourne the sixth.

The Dismantling Of the Safety Net

It must be a tough gig being forced to live with a parent as a 29 year-old job-seeker, but what’s tougher still is having no parent’s home to move back to. From the moment I complete my final assessment, I’ll be taken off Youth Allowance with no access to other welfare measures. How does one secure the most basic of needs — rent, food and clothing — with minimal or no income? I, for one, cannot survive on my current café work alone. For those of us with no access to a parent’s home, there’s not much to look forward to.

If my sister and I can’t immediately find stable employment at the conclusion of our studies, my single mother — a part-time TAFE teacher on a less-than modest income — might need to sell her home or dip into retirement savings to keep us afloat. But all things considered, that’s a pretty peachy outcome. So many other families with children like me don’t have a home to sell. Others are affected by addiction or disability. Others were already living below the poverty line even before these reforms are made. And though I will undoubtedly suffer, I have numerous support networks to keep me treading water. I won’t become homeless. But there are so many others that might not stay afloat. Some will be deterred from ever leaving their sleepy towns, and will miss out on the opportunities that their urban counterparts enjoy.

So if our government wants fewer youths supposedly bludging on welfare payments, they might like to make tertiary education more affordable, not less affordable. They might consider investing in public education reforms and trying to equip youths with employable skills, instead of cutting $1 billion from apprenticeships and training. They might invest in job creation, and infrastructure that goes beyond a new highway. They might provide greater support to rural and regional youth. Understanding the root causes of welfare dependency would have far greater impacts than cutting people off with no viable path to employment. Poverty and disadvantage doesn’t cease to exist simply because we stop acknowledging them. In fact, the opposite is true.

So when you ask us to either Earn or Learn, perhaps you could follow your own teachings, Joe. Learn that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to Australians on welfare. Learn that representing each and every one of us is what you were elected to do. Learn that doing so is kind of your job. You see, we aren’t angry because you’ve harshed our bludging buzz. We are angry because we are scared.

Rachel Eddie is a Sydney based freelance writer, editor of Vertigo and amateur sasspert. You can follow her on Twitter at @heyracheddie

Image via World Finance