The federal government has no plans to raise the rate of JobSeeker in its October budget, even as new data warns that cost of living pressures and personal debt have emerged as the leading “risk factor for suicide” in Australia over the next 12 months.
In a survey of 1,000 Australians conducted by Suicide Prevention Australia, 70 percent of those asked about the source of their distress reported feeling “elevated” levels as a result of the social and economic circumstances they face, compared to how they felt 12 months ago.
According to the survey’s results, which were released as part of the annual State of the Nation in Suicide Prevention report on Tuesday, 40 percent said that cost of living pressures and personal debt were causing them distress.
Suicide Prevention Australia CEO, Nieves Murray, said it’s the first time an economic issue has led the survey as a source of distress. Another 26 percent said the source of their distress was social isolation and loneliness, followed by family and relationship breakdowns, which accounted for 23 percent of responses.
Speaking about the report at an event in Parliament House on Tuesday morning, prime minister Anthony Albanese said Australia’s suicide rates are an “ongoing stain on our national conscience”, The Guardian reported, which “we need” to do better on.
Welfare advocates and jobseekers themselves were quick to point out that it wouldn’t take the prime minister much effort at all to curb cost of living pressure by lifting more than 1 million people out of poverty and raising the rate of JobSeeker.
Jeremy Poxon, a spokesperson for the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) and welfare recipient, said there is “no doubt” that Australia’s welfare system, which has recently undergone a host of changes under the new Labor government, is “driving people to suicide”.
“People suffering on JobSeeker were grimly holding onto some hope that a new government would do something to improve their lives, [but] the government has chosen to extinguish that hope,” Poxon told VICE.
“Soon, our prime minister—the lauded son of a poor single parent—will have blood on his hands.”
A recent survey conducted by the AUWU, prompted by the government’s roll-out of Workforce Australia, returned an “overriding…sense of fear” among jobseekers. Of the 406 responses it received, at least 36 participants in the flawed new employment services program referenced damaging mental health impacts.
At least seven responses referenced suicide directly.
“The raw data shows that JobSeeker is driving people to an early death, and we hear, every day, from members who are being pushed to the brink,” Poxon said.
From September 20, the daily rate of JobSeeker will increase $1.80, after the payment underwent an automatic indexation increase, which happens twice a year regardless of the government of the day to make sure payments are kept in line with inflation. Still, the Albanese government tried to claim it as a win.
The messaging was ruthless, and came from all corners of Albanese’s cabinet. While Australia is poised to receive its biggest increase to welfare payments in 30 years, social services advocates said it is still “grossly inadequate”.
Antipoverty Centre spokesperson and Disability Support Pension, Kristin O’Connell, said every time “this happens”, she and her colleagues are flooded with an influx of messages from people in extreme distress, both psychological and financial.
“The welfare system is killing people and it’s only getting worse. These choices politicians are making directly harm us,” O’Connell said.
“It is not ‘financially responsible’ to leave millions relying on poverty payments. It is not ‘financially responsible’ to deny us the ability to pay for food, healthcare, rent and bills,” she said.
“Welfare recipients are the best budgeters in the country and we can tell the government one thing: If you are forced to choose between luxuries and essentials, you have to prioritise basic needs. And Albanese is failing in his duty of care to ensure everyone can afford to have their basic needs met.”
On Twitter alone, Albanese’s replies were flooded with similar reminders, after he tweeted out pleas for Australians to “stick together and support one another—particularly those struggling with their mental health”.
If he truly wanted to take immediate steps to curb Australia’s suicide rate, people suggested, he could simply “raise the rate”.
Australian Council of Social Service acting CEO, Edwina MacDonald, called on the government to “urgently” increase JobSeeker just one day earlier, along with Youth Allowance and all other related payments as part of its October Budget to soften the “acute crisis” facing Australia’s lowest income earners.
She said the payment should be at least $70 a day—others are calling for more.
“Indexation of JobSeeker happens twice per year in line with the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The September 20 rise reflects the CPI increases from December to June 2022,” MacDonald said.
“It does not deliver a real increase—an increase above inflation—and that is what people on JobSeeker and other payments need to keep a roof over their head and put food on the table,” she said.
So far, the Albanese government has ruled out a rise, citing “tough decisions” and the debt of its predecessors. Just hours before the Reserve Bank of Australia would lift the cash rate for the fifth month running, to a seven-year high of 2.35 percent, Murray urged the government to take a “whole-of-government” approach to suicide prevention.
“Feeding the family and keeping a roof over our heads are two of the most basic human behaviours,” Murray said.
“While inflation and interest rates keep rising, we must be prepared and proactive to prevent mental distress and suicide rates from doing the same.”
For help or information in Australia, call Lifeline on 131 114, or visit beyondblue.org.au
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