Since the coronavirus hit Aussie shores, sparking mass shutdown and social distancing restrictions, an unexpected group has found themselves benefiting from the global pandemic.
That is, the millions struggling to get by on existing government support payments like JobSeeker, Parenting Payment and Sickness Allowance.
In a bid to help Aussies left out of work and impacted by the virus the government announced an extra $550 coronavirus supplement would be paid to anyone receiving certain benefits effective immediately, and for most this meant receiving close to double their current allowance.
550 Reasons to Smile: A bid to keep the payment beyond COVID
Now, two women have spearheaded a heartwarming new project, 550 Reasons to Smile, in a bid to keep the payment at the new rates beyond the proposed September 24 cut-off date.
Terese Edwards is Chief Executive Officer of the National Council of Single Mothers & their Children, while Nikita Radford is studying her Masters of Public Health at Flinders University.
Nikita is on JobSeeker as a student, and she says when she got the extra payment she was able to book in a trip to see the dentist for the first time in a decade thanks to the extra cash.
She says she saw firsthand how much of a difference the payment could make for those living below the poverty line, and decided to invite others to share what changes the extra $550 had made to their lives in anonymous posts to the 550 Reasons to Smile Facebook page.
“The thing that strikes me is people are able to eat proper meals, and not just survive on food,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
“There’s a number of people who have been able to escape domestic violence, [who] without this money would still be trapped.”
Under the new payment, anyone on JobSeeker with a dependant or dependants, who could previously receive a maximum payment of $612 per fortnight, suddenly found themselves with $1162.
Sickness Allowance usually maxes out at $604.70 for anyone with a dependant but has been hiked up to $1154.70 per fortnight with the extra payment.
Nikita and Terese believe going back on those figures, and the small freedoms they afford, is not an option.
“We can never go back,” the duo write in their galvanising Facebook page description.
“We invite Australians to upload a picture of what they have spent the Coronavirus Supplement on, share a quick video, or make a statement. Let’s turn hardship into Hope.”
‘Warm feet’ for three kids
One mum was thrilled to keep her kids warm for winter.
“Brought the boots and winter socks last fortnight. Can afford new coats today. We will be mushrooming over the weekend.
“If the $550 stays we may be able to afford a kitten. It breaks my heart when “Pet Week” at school is something that I dread.”
– Message from Stella, mum of Archie, Sam and Molly
Furniture and haircuts for an elderly couple
One elderly couple shared the life-changing impact of the payment, including new glasses and haircuts.
“The supplement has changed the picture of our lives.”
“We are older people and I can't work above 15 hrs for health reasons and hubby is long term unemployed with a number of disorders. Having suffered bankruptcy and losing our home we were fortunate to get community housing and moved in with next to nothing.
“The extra $550 has allowed us to buy all second hand but beautiful furniture, we also brought blankets, lawnmower and a washing machine. We both had had hair cuts, new glasses, the car is back on the road and we have taken up study, I can watch my [grandchildren] in the holiday and buy them lunch out.
“None of this would be possible without the stimulus and supplement.”
– Message from A
Escape from domestic violence
For one mother it was the escape from the trap of domestic violence.
“550 has given myself and my two young children the opportunity to escape severe domestic violence, not only having enough to fill up the car to get away but also enough to purchase fresh food and needed medical items. “
“I didn’t have to choose between our safety or food. This has been a life changer and also may have been a lifesaver. My children for the first time ever can have fresh food in a safe home surrounded by love.”
– Message from C
New clothes for her daughter, for the first time
One little girl got brand new clothes for the first time in her life.
“I still fall short every fortnight despite paid work and receiving single parenting payment. After rent, bills, car payments - there isn’t much leftover.”
“The additional $550 has allowed me to purchase BRAND NEW clothing for my 2 year old for the first time.
I also no longer require food vouchers to buy enough groceries.
“The feeling of being able to finally provide proper winter coats and boots for my toddler and knowing we both have full tummies every day is beyond words.
“Thank you for creating this page, it has been very comforting knowing that I am not the only one who has fallen on hard times.”
– Message from Em
A 6th birthday treat
For these parents, it was a very little thing that made a big difference.
“Pure pleasure, a birthday present for my boy. I also have enough money to make a birthday cake.”
– Message from Lilly and Jake
Choosing healthy food AND medicine
For this student, it was the joy of not choosing between health, transport and medicine.
“Its the first time in 3 years that I don't have to choose between medication, medical appointments food or transport. I can also put fresh fruit in my shopping basket. I`m on Youth Allowance and really worried if the rate drops.”
– Message from A
How much extra does the coronavirus supplement add and who benefits?
The Coronavirus Supplement was announced in March as part of the government’s second coronavirus stimulus package.
The payments started from April 27 and were initially promised for about 6 months, with the government later naming September 24 as a cut off date.
Now with a resurgence in cases in Victoria and NSW Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced the payments will remain available for those ‘who need it’ during the pandemic.
Currently, the $550 is added to existing payments for Aussie who access any of the following assistance:
ABSTUDY Living Allowance
Farm Household Allowance
The payment almost doubled the income of people receiving payments like JobSeeker. A person with one or more dependents previously received a maximum of $612 a fortnight, with the additional $550 paid each fortnight during the pandemic almost doubling their income.
Sickness Allowance maxes out at $604.70 for anyone with a dependent but hiked up to $1154.70 with the payment.
Nikita says if we return to the former payments it will be a slide back into poverty for many.
“The payments have definitely helped break the cycle of poverty which will make it even harder if cut off in September,” she says. “People will just fall back into poverty, and poverty is expensive.”
Should we increase JobSeeker permanently?
Debate has long raged over the normal rates paid to Aussies on JobSeeker or other government assistance, with some academics claiming the rate has remained more or less stagnant for over 20 years.
Professor Peter Whiteford wrote for The Conversation back in May that the JobSeeker payment rate has ‘scarcely increased in real terms since 1994.’
He is calling for an extra $185 a week to be added permanently to the payments to keep Australians out of poverty, though Nikita says anything less than the current payment simply won’t cut it.
“It needs to be enough to bring us above the poverty line,” Nikita says of any proposed increase to the baser payment.
“And that $550 has just brought us above the poverty line, so anything less than that, people are still going to be living in poverty.”
“It’s as simple as giving people enough money to not live in poverty.”