CONTENT WARNING: COVID-19, Brief Mention of Climate Change
It’s all looking a bit grim. Most university and TAFE students, save for mature-aged ones, have never lived through a recession before. Australia has enjoyed 28 years of economic growth. Students graduating in the last recession reported having their career ambitions “dashed or delayed” at an unemployment rate of 11 per cent. This current crisis is odds-on much worse, with a ‘true’ unemployment rate of up to 20 per cent according to economist Dr. Jim Stanford. This places us at an unemployment rate comparable to the Great Depression of the last century. The think tank Per Capita pegs the ‘true’ youth unemployment rate at a staggering 50 per cent, compounding the problem for young people.
At the outset, we must understand that students and unemployed people are not two separate categories. Many students seek work to finance their studies and many unemployed people become students again to upskill. The absence of job opportunities makes education difficult to attain. As we look towards a bleak job market future, the interests of students and unemployed people are bound up together in an unprecedented way. We have a joint responsibility to face this crisis together.
The economic fallout is not a threat that only applies to students about to graduate into an uncertain job market. The Great Depression lasted a decade. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were still living in the shadow of the Global Financial Crisis. Any recovery from the COVID-19 recession is going to be limited by the ongoing climate crisis. Even if you’re a first year, this crisis may narrow your prospects for stable employment for a very long time.
There is no need to despair, only to organise. Many progressive think tanks, organisations and those within the trade union movement are actively fighting for a future that does not consign society to persistently high unemployment and underemployment. However—acknowledging the gravity of the crisis facing us— we also must centre the rights of unemployed people to a dignified socioeconomic position.
This is where the work of organisations like the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) is essential. There are folks out there fighting to ensure that the JobSeeker payment remains a liveable one, a very necessary task. Prior to the doubling of the payment at the onset of COVID-19, it was effectively a starvation rate. The AUWU fights this fight with very limited resources— and in the face of a difficult unity position held by the Coalition and the Australian Labor Party. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese argues that we should not maintain JobSeeker at the doubled rate on the basis that it exceeds the Disability Support Pension (DSP) and the aged care pension.
There is no coherent argument against preserving a high JobSeeker payment rate. The fact that JobSeeker exceeds the DSP and the aged care pension signals only that we should look to raise the DSP and aged care pension. From a fiscal perspective, we have the capacity to maintain an expanded welfare state. The reporting error in budgeting the JobKeeper program totalled $60 billion. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) outlines that our post-tax subsidies to fossil fuels alone total $29 billion per annum. Retaining the doubled JobSeeker rate would only cost one to two billion a month, or up to $24 billion per annum. Any budget constraint— real or imagined— reflects our priorities and preferences.
We must also ensure that Youth Allowance, AusStudy, and ABStudy are lifted permanently from their old maximum rates, maintained at the new higher rates. For a single person living away from home, these payments have all been more than doubled due to the extra $550 supplement per fortnight. Maintaining these higher rates makes study and further study economically viable in a down economy. In conjunction with a higher JobSeeker rate, this will ensure economic dignity for everyone out of work— both within and outside our education institutions.
To the extent that the ANU Students’ Association (ANUSA), the Postgraduate Representative Students’ Association (PARSA) and other student unions nationwide can express solidarity with unemployed workers, they should. In doing so, they will be representing students’ short and long-term interests. In the meantime, individual students should consider what capacity they have to support organisations fighting for the rights of unemployed people.
We all have a stake in a permanent and broad-based expansion of the welfare state now. This isn’t a radical proposition for anyone that believes a functioning social democracy is preferable to the politics of austerity. The futures of many depend upon it, including perhaps your own.
Christopher Warren is a solidarity member of the AUWU.