‘Winter in Canberra is Cool’: Capital is Locked in and $ 33 a Day is Cold Comfort for the Unemployed | Welfare

Andy Knight is crushed and there is no end to the lockdown in sight.

On a day when the ACT chief minister announced two dozen more Covid cases, Knight went down in stores and thought he had $ 28 to his name. But the ATM showed minus three dollars.

“Some pending payments suddenly came through at the wrong time for me,” he says.

It was not always like that. One of the big, cruel irony of Australia’s pandemic is that for people like Knight, 57, in some ways, life may never have been better than last year.

That is not to say that it was easy. Not by any means. It was still very, very hard.

But for Knight, whose hometown until recently largely escaped the clutches of the coronavirus, life’s desperation for a paycheck disappeared.

Now things may never have been worse. Delta has arrived in Canberra and Knight, who is living with mental health issues, is on probation.

Compared to last year, when his jobseeker’s payments filled up to just above the poverty line, he is around $ 495 every fortnight, or $ 35 a day, worse off.

He lives for $ 44 a day with a quarter deducted for his apartment in an ACT public housing complex. Better to say $ 33 a day.

Knight explains the difference between last year and now in sharp terms. “I did not have to search the path for bumpers,” he says of 2020, referring to the process of using the remaining tobacco in discarded cigarettes to roll new ones.

“I bought some clothes for the first time in years. I bought myself a jacket and pants. And you know I could eat comfortably.”

And today? “The fact that I do not understand [coronavirus supplement] now it makes it very difficult, ”he says. “One thing I regret that I did not buy is shoes. My shoes are worn out now and they have holes,” he adds. “The winter in Canberra is cool.”

Andy Knight, classified as long-term unemployed, outside his home in Canberra.
Andy Knight, classified as long-term unemployed, outside his home in Canberra. Photo: Mike Bowers / The Guardian

Delta’s arrival in Australia forced a reconsideration of the Morrison government’s plan to completely turn off extra income support.

Without the job keeper subsidy, which was paid to laid-off workers through companies predicting a downturn, the government bowed to pressure in June and introduced a disaster pay for people who had lost their jobs.

But it did nothing for people on income support who were out of pocket after losing casual or part-time jobs they used to supplement their benefits on. It responded with a $ 200 payment to welfare recipients who could prove they had lost eight hours or more a week.

But people with the lowest incomes in Australia – those who live solely on welfare benefits – have been left without extra Covid support. It is Knight, and 540,000 other people like him, who are currently locked up, according to the Australian Council of Social Service analysis from last month.

“I guess the assumption is that we are not feeling worse now than we were before,” Knight says. “If we survived for petty cash, it would not change any of it to be locked inside.”

The Knights’ summary of the government’s position is broadly correct. It argues that the welfare pledge last year was in response to the shock of a nationwide shutdown at the start of a new pandemic.

And it points out that when it increased the base rate of job seekers’ pay from $ 40 to $ 44 a day in February, at a cost of $ 9 billion, it was the largest increase in unemployment benefits since 1986.

Still, it’s no consolation for Knight, who has been out of work since 2013 and who does not expect to find a job yet.

“I’ve gotten used to this,” he says. “One of the main reasons I can not get a job is that I have developed depression and anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder from the way I was treated by my employer.”

For about 15 years, Knight had worked in television and climbed the ladder from camera operator to director, directing news, sports and current affairs programs. But he says he was eventually pushed out of his job, a traumatic experience that has shaped his life ever since.

The last job he had was as a maintenance man at one of Sydney’s affluent private schools.

“I chose high school maintenance as a job because I had been told it was the least stressful job in the world,” he says. “I saw a study they did about the lowest levels of stress. Air traffic controllers, brain surgeons were highly stressed. But the high school maintenance man is listed as the least stressful job in the world. “

At school, Knight found that the results of the study were not accurate, at least for him. “I was still stressed every day,” Knight says.

Although much has been said about the impact of shutdowns and the pandemic in general on mental health, including by federal government ministers, there has been less talk about how the unemployed or people with disabilities are affected by the low rate of their welfare payments.

Guardian Australia reported on Friday on new research from some of the country’s top mental health experts calling for a return to the coronavirus supplement that has helped Knight so much last year.

Despite living through the early days of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, Knight has no doubt he was less stressed last year. One of the central problems of his life had been remedied.

“You have fewer things to worry about,” Knight says. “I was cut, I got a nice sweater and pants. I had a little extra cash. I thought I could ask the lady in the bookstore, who I see from time to time, if she would like to go out and have a cup of coffee.

“You feel better about yourself with a little bit of money in your pocket. That kind of snowball.”

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