Welfare reforms could hit Wagga’s most vulnerable

The city’s most vulnerable could take a hard hit if proposed welfare reforms are passed in the Senate this month. 

The Coalition’s controversial Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill was set to be debated in the upper house in February but Wagga’s charity leaders hope commonsense will prevail. 

The reforms could bring an increase in requirements to be approved for Centrelink payments, a new demerit point system that could strip benefits entirely, and longer waiting periods to access financial support – support that is close-to $200 below the poverty line. 

It follows last years’ reveal 1500 Riverina residents were wrestling homelessness, according to the St Vincent De Paul Society. 

​Centacare chief executive Paul Jensen said these reforms, if approved, would not improve the grim plight of these men, women and children. 

Mr Jensen said there were a number of concerns raised about the potential backlash from the Bill, with middle-class residents already struggling to make ends meet. 

He said he firstly foresaw problems the abolition of back pay for Newstart and Youth Allowance. 

If approved, recipients will receive no income while they wait for Centrelink to process their application. 

“There is a six-week waiting period for these applications,” Mr Jensen said. “So somehow they have to think through how they are going to survive during that time.”

Mr Jensen said the move seemed to be backed by a belief there were deserving and non-deserving poor. But he said that was a myth. 

“People don’t choose to be poor,” Mr Jensen said. “They may make life choices that create difficulties, but they don’t choose to be poor.”

For residents in crisis, like women fleeing domestic violence, there is currently an opportunity to access an Intent to Claim income, but not under the proposed reforms. 

Wagga Women’s Health Centre pioneer Jan Roberts said it seemed the bureaucratic decision makers either did not think about people on the ground or did not care.

She said the decision, if passed, would hurt those most vulnerable, including women experiencing abuse and any children they were responsible for. 

“Vulnerable people are being treated like they’re going through a sausage machine,” Ms Roberts said. “(The government) uses algorithms that don’t necessarily fit neatly into every category.”

She said it was a heavy-handed and unfair process, neglecting individual situations and stories. 

“Nothing is ever achieved when you just throw people out the door,” Ms Roberts said. “It’s placing people at risk of homelessness.”