explainer

"We spend zero dollars on food." Newstart has mum-of-five Leah living off $320 a fortnight.

Leah, a 48-year-old mum of five, receives $320 in Newstart allowance every fortnight.

A bond loan and an advanced payment plan she took out to pay for car registration has already been automatically deducted from her payments. Once she pays for rent, petrol, her electricity and phone bill, car and funeral insurance, Leah is often left with nothing.

“We spend zero dollars on food,” she tells Mamamia. “I’d rely on food services, like Vinnies or the church.”

“The only reason I have money for food now is that my son and his fiance have moved back and they pay board,” she adds.

Listen to Leah speak more about her experience on Newstart on Mamamia’s The Quicky. Post continues. 

Leah is one of more than 700,000 Australians who rely on the Newstart allowance to survive.

For a single person without kids on Newstart, they’ll receive a maximum of $555.70 a fortnight. That’s $277.85 a week, just shy of $40 a day.

It’s a number that hasn’t risen in real terms since the mid-1990s, back when petrol was just over 66c/L and rent was on average under $200.

In 2019, for people like Leah who survive on Newstart, they have learnt to go without to make ends meet.

“You eat once a day so your children can have three meals a day,” Leah, whose two youngest children live at home with her and her husband, tells Mamamia‘s daily news podcast, The Quicky.

“You don’t go out for dinners, you don’t go out to the movies. My husband and I go out once a year for our anniversary. And half the time other people pay that for us.”

“You always put yourself last,” she says, “I don’t buy make-up. I don’t buy new clothes. Occasionally at Christmas I buy myself new underwear because that’s the one time you can get something.”

Leah is constantly thinking about money. She doesn’t have a choice. She has to think ahead to calculate what expenses have to be paid. She needs to be creative to stretch a dollar to pay for an ever-expanding list of things. And she always has to weigh up what will inevitably be sacrificed.

“When my son asks if his mate can sleepover, in the back of my mind you think, ‘what can I afford to feed hungry teenage boys?’ Then you give him and his friend dinner and you and your hubby have toast.”

Living on Newstart means every single dollar you have has already been carefully accounted for. There’s no room for any of life’s curveballs, bringing with it unexpected expenses that keep you up at night with worry about how you’ll pay for it. Leah doesn’t remember a time when that fear wasn’t in the back of her mind.

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“You live in hope every day that something unexpected doesn’t happen,” she says.

“It makes you ill. It adds so much stress. When our washing machine died, we didn’t even have a bit of money. We couldn’t even buy a second-hand washing machine,” she tells Mamamia.

“My dad had to buy a new one for us.”

When Leah’s husband had a heart attack, instead of racing to the hospital to see her husband, she had to calculate if she had enough money to pay for the fuel to drive to the hospital – as well as pay for the hospital parking.

“I didn’t have the $5 to pay for parking,” she says. “You shouldn’t have to be worrying about parking – your husband just had a heart attack. You shouldn’t have to worry about how you’re going to get to the hospital.”

Even though life often feels like a constant struggle, Leah tries her best to keep her children shielded from the reality of their poverty and sacrifices her needs so her boys can have as much of a normal teenage life as possible.

“My youngest son is 16 – he doesn’t need those worries and those burdens. They do know to some extent because you have to tell them you can’t get the latest phone or that I can’t buy those $60 shoes, you’ll have to have these $10 ones,” she says.

“When he wants to go to the movies with his friends, you try and find that money from somewhere so he can have some sort of teenage life. We scrimped and saved so he could go on Year 11 school camp. If that means I don’t get a haircut for 12 months, so be it. I have scissors or I can put my hair in a bun so others won’t notice.”

At 48 and suffering from a number of health conditions, Leah has found it difficult to re-enter the workforce after she took time off to care for her dying father.

“I have fibromyalgia which is very tough, it affects your bones, joints, as well as your muscles. It gives you extreme tiredness, it’s very difficult to do anything,” she explains.

“I also have Trigeminal Neuralgia – it’s akin to having a migraine on steroids so getting a job where your employee will understand you have these health problems and that some days you’re not going to be able to work to what they need you to work, it’s very difficult.”

“Centrelink don’t understand; trying to get onto disability support pension is an absolute ridiculous joke,” she says.

The hand that life has dealt Leah feels tough. Every day is difficult and hard, a cycle that in her darkest moments feels as though she’ll never be able to escape.

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“Some days I feel like the world’s a horrible place and you do get very depressed, and you can’t just get in car and drive somewhere because you don’t have the money for fuel,” she says.

“You can’t just go and do this or pick up a hobby because you don’t have the money for it. So you’re sort of stuck.”

But even though there are days when Leah wakes up and it all seems so hopeless, her motto in life is to always look on the bright side.

“You just have to keep battling through and keep on keeping on, and hope that one day something will change and you’ll be okay.”

For others out there who are doing it tough, Leah wants you to know:

“It will get better, just hang in there. Don’t be afraid to seek help from all these different agencies. And you’re not a dole bludger, you just got there for whatever reason. Don’t let anyone put you down.”

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you’re based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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