The inequality gap could widen to the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving poor’ if leaders aren’t courageous, says Centre for Social Impact CEO.

The eerie scenes of hundreds of Australians standing in long queues outside Centrelink reflect the current employment pressures inflamed by COVID-19.

More and more Australians are losing their jobs, and we are now facing the prospect that 1.7 million people will be on welfare.   

The pandemic will have significant implications on people’s lives, said Professor Kristy Muir,  CEO of the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) and a Professor of Social Policy at UNSW Business School.

“The economic implications will affect whether they can pay their mortgages, meet their rent, afford to pay their utility bills, afford to feed their family nutritious food,” she said.

Professor Muir explained that Australia needs “leaders who are adaptive, responsive and courageous and who hold humanity at their core.

“If the things we value most – such as families, friends, education, work, leisure, shelter, good food, good health, facilities and supports in our communities that enable participation – are at the forefront of our and our leaders’ minds and decisions, then we have the power to shape a different future,” she said.

This includes thinking and acting collectively, rather than individually. “We have an opportunity to put the country on a different trajectory during COVID-19 and after it.”

Before COVID-19, 700,000 people were unemployed and over one million were underemployed in Australia.

“Add to these numbers the people across the population who are skilled and were previously employed who will find themselves (possibly for the first time in their lives) without a job,” she said.

In recent events the government announced the central plank in the $130 billion-dollar economic stimulus package in response to the coronavirus.

Businesses will receive a fortnightly wage subsidy of up to $1,500 per employee as part of the Federal Government’s bid to prevent millions of people from losing their jobs.

“Having a combination of Job Seeker and JobKeeper supports are welcome and really important for people across Australia and our economy,” Professor Muir said.

The introduction of the JobKeeper payment aligns Australia with countries internationally who have introduced a wage subsidy scheme, including the UK, Denmark, Netherlands, Ireland and South Korea.

“Importantly, it also ensures that employees are still receiving superannuation payments and keeping their jobs.

“This is a win-win for businesses and charities who need support to continue to pay their employees during a time of significant revenue loss and for people to stay employed with some income security while also still receiving superannuation,” she said.

Work done at CSI on Australia’s social progress demonstrates that despite economic growth over almost 30 years, unfortunately, there has been no corresponding social and environmental progress.

“We’re going to see the already vulnerable becoming more vulnerable and we’re going to see more people become vulnerable,” she said.

Professor Muir said Neoliberalism has created a perception and support system where we have the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.

“Joblessness and poverty have often been portrayed and perceived as an individual failure and an individual responsibility, rather than a result of the structures of society within which inequality of opportunity exists and people have different advantages and disadvantages as starting points and throughout life,” she explained.

She said we have seen this play out in policies, such as not increasing Newstart for over two decades.

“What worries me is that this popular perception prevails: either that people who lose their jobs now as a result of COVID-19 are made to feel (in part) individually responsible.

 “Or that we end up with a situation where we have two classes of jobless – the ‘deserving jobless’ who have already or will lose their jobs to COVID-19 and those who were unemployed previously, the ‘undeserving’.”

More online mental health support is critical during these times and there are tools available that assist with mental wellbeing, but Professor Muir said not everyone will have the funding to access these.

With 2.5 million people digitally excluded in Australia, low-income people, the elderly and other vulnerable socio-demographic groups are disproportionately left out of the digital world and this creates a prominent digital divide.

There is a significant need for governments, businesses and philanthropy to support digital inclusion to decrease this gap.

“Digital exclusion is a really serious barrier to educational outcomes, employment and social wellbeing.

“When children are being educated at home, when people are being asked to work from home, when people can’t see their grandchildren physically, having access to a computer and the internet and the ability to use it is critical.”

The decisions that individuals, businesses, governments and community organisations make post COVID-19 will determine whether the inequality gap widens.

“Or if society hits a reset post COVID-19 and finds a way to ensure that our economies and societies are structured in a way that everyone has a right to safe, stable housing, adequate incomes, access to decent healthcare and equal opportunity for education and work.”

Information current as of April 1 2020.