Blue Mountains push to raise the rate of Newstart

Push to raise unemployment benefits: Cr Brent Hoare, Cr Romola Hollywood, Pas Forgione from the Australian Council of Social Services and Newstart recipient Raffaella Washington.
Push to raise unemployment benefits: Cr Brent Hoare, Cr Romola Hollywood, Pas Forgione from the Australian Council of Social Services and Newstart recipient Raffaella Washington.

North Katoomba's Raffaella Washington, 62, has been struggling to survive on Newstart, the main income support payment for the unemployed, for seven years.

The part-time English and maths primary school tutor, recently took out a reverse mortgage to pay for repairs on her home.

"I'm in $20,000 worth of debt," Ms Washington said. "It was the only way I could keep my house - I got a reverse mortgage."

Ms Washington has had vision problems since she was a child with extreme myopia and astigmatism. She does an hour of tutoring each week, but is still struggling with eye problems after operations this year.

"I had really bad cataracts, I had to wait for my turn to come up for the operation, I don't know if I can find work with my vision," she said. If she earns more than $52, her payments will be reduced. She survives on about $300 a week.

Greens Councillor Brent Hoare and Labor Cr Romola Hollywood are part of a local push to raise the rate of Newstart.

Cr Hoare said there are 1,564 residents on Newstart in the Blue Mountains Council area and 494 on youth allowance. There has been no increase in 25 years in Newstart and at about $40 a day it was below the poverty line, he said. Cr Hoare said apart from the moral imperative to fix the problem, economically it also made sense.

The region's economy would lift by $7.57 million in the first year alone if Newstart and related payments were increased, according to a 2018 analysis by Deloitte Access Economics, he said.

"These payments trap people in poverty, making it even harder for them to look for a job, keep a roof over their head and participate in our community."

"It's time for us to bite the bullet," he said. "It's a bit depressing when local government needs to exercise leadership that the higher levels of government should."

Cr Hollywood, who works in the community sector, said it was a particular concern with a growing older population in the Mountains. It meant once recipients had paid rent they had to "try to cobble together money for a meal, medication, clothing and communication technology that they needed to apply for a job ... they are trapped in a cycle of poverty and underemployment".

Ms Washington said "if politicians were able to empathise ... if they spent three months living on Newstart ... they might have some idea of what suffering is. Socially you are really ostracised ... everybody I know - 100 per cent of them have anxiety and depression".

Ms Washington relies on a car to drive her 93-year-old mother around and said "food comes last".

"I go to Food Rescue at Junction 142. I haven't brought bread in years. It's stale so I toast it, I grow vegetables for survival, I try to preserve with my fruit trees, I cook all my own food. Slowly over time it dawned on me no-one was going to help me. If I could use less of my reverse mortgage it would all help, it would definitely take the pressure off."

Council's "operational response" was to support the rise. Council voted to unanimously support Cr Hoare's proposal to endorse the campaign led by the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) to raise the rate of Newstart payments.

Council also called on the federal government to increase payments by at least $75, rent assistance by $20 (a 30 per cent a week increase) and index payments to ensure they keep up with the consumer price index. The mayor will write to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, treasurer Josh Frydenberg and the social services minister urging the rate increase.