You must not be content with tiding the poor over the poverty crisis. You must study their condition and the injustices which brought about such poverty, with the aim of a long-term improvement. Frédéric Oznam.
Advocating for social justice is central to the work of the St Vincent de Paul Society. It is embedded in the mission statement of the Society and is a defining element of what we do. The ways in which conference members carry out their volunteer work, assisting those in need, embodies the essence of social justice. However, as The Rule indicates, ‘the Society is concerned not only with alleviating need but also with identifying the unjust structures that cause it’ (The Rule 2012, p. 26: 7.1).
Identifying and overcoming the unjust structures that give rise to poverty and inequality is central to the Society’s National Social Justice Committee. The committee, which comprises representatives from each state and territory, supports the Society’s advocacy for social change. The committee is guided by the Society’s National Social Justice and Advocacy Policy Statement posted on the national website. That policy highlights advocacy on the lack of an adequate income and helping to reduce poverty as some of the major goals for the Society.
The St Vincent de Paul Society has a very strong reputation within our community for the good works that it undertakes. When the Society speaks on issues, politicians listen. This privileged position carries with it a responsibility to speak out for the rights of those we serve. At a time when much of the Church is under challenge, the Society is free from those pressures and there is an even greater need for us to be heard on the injustices affecting our companions.
Our social justice advocacy is also at its most compelling when we speak directly from our experiences dealing with the disadvantages suffered by our companions. Our members witness every day the hardships and indignities that arise from inadequate income support payments such as Newstart Allowance. Those in receipt of Newstart struggle to survive on a payment that hasn’t kept up with rising costs of living and is well below any poverty measure used in Australia. Often the only way they can survive is to call on us for help.
The Society has long campaigned for an increase to meagre income support payments and for those payments to be indexed to wages and price increases as an urgent priority. The Newstart Allowance has not been increased since 1994, and inadequate indexation has meant that payments and allowances have fallen behind wages growth and behind the costs of essential services.
The current payment of just $39 per day is simply not enough to meet basic living costs. The single rate of Newstart is $145 per week below the poverty line, while the single rate of Youth Allowance is $197 below the poverty line.
The Society has joined with the Australian Council of Social Services and many other organisations and individuals to call on both political parties to commit to raising the rate by an amount of $75 per week. In addition to gaining support from social services and charities, the campaign has been endorsed by a wide cross-section of the community including prominent economists, former prime ministers (including John Howard) and business leaders (including the Business Council of Australia).
To highlight the challenges of surviving on Newstart, the Society has partnered with an animation company to produce an interactive animation. This animation draws upon existing research on the costs of living to show how inadequate current income support payments are. In addition to launching this animation, an accompanying website has been developed (https://raisetherate.vinnies.org.au/) which includes a range of supporting materials for the Newstart campaign: factsheets and policy briefings; case studies and stories of life on Newstart; and template letters and guidance for members and supporters to assist them in contacting their elected representatives.
We urge all members and supporters of Vinnies to sign up to the campaign and to contact their local elected members to get their commitment to this long overdue reform.
Kym Duggan is Chair of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Social Justice Committee.