Mature-age people on low incomes have long done it tough, often facing precarious employment, insecure housing, and unstable income with limited access to the age pension or superannuation.
New research by the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Nous Group shines a light on an issue so far overlooked: the impact of COVID-19 on mature-age, low-income people who were already disadvantaged. Our report, Hidden in plain sight, presents the evidence base for the problem and shows the impact of potential policy solutions by national, state and territory governments.
The crisis is compounding vulnerabilities among older people, often entrenching these existing problems. Our research reveals that up to 30% of the newly un- or underemployed are aged 51 to 65. This means nearly 400,000 Australians aged 51 to 65 will have their hours impacted or lose their jobs due to the economic impact of COVID-19.
Mature-age workers comprise an estimated 30% of job losses and have been hit hard because many industries that are significant employers of these workers are among those most impacted by the recession: education and training, retail trade, accommodation and food services.
Governments have acted quickly to put in place social protections for the whole population, as well as some vulnerable groups, but mature-age, low-income people have fallen through the cracks. The current policy response provides too-few targeted supports that address their needs at the same time as their livelihoods are being threatened, risking shunting this group between different forms of disadvantage and increasing reliance on inadequate social security payments.
There are a few reasons why this group misses out.
For starters, some programs are primarily aimed at Australians aged 65+, such as enhancements to the Community Visitors Scheme, Queensland’s Care Army and an Older Persons Information Line. Help for these people is welcome, but Australians under 65 also require targeted measures.
Then there is the short-term focus on the relief effort, which means longer-term problems are not addressed and may even be exacerbated. These policies include the temporary nature of the increased rate of unemployment benefit (JobSeeker), moratoriums on evictions and rent increases, and funding boosts to ease pressure on support systems. Early access to superannuation may cause later financial strain. And there is the use of existing systems and service structures to deliver COVID-19 programs, when those structures are often flawed.
The challenges this group faces makes it particularly vulnerable to the social, health and economic impacts of COVID-19 and associated policy responses. These issues are strongly intersectional in nature – particularly regarding gender.
Women are more likely to take time out of work, or to work part-time while caring for children and/or other family members. As a result, women are at disproportionally greater risk of housing and financial stress as they age. Refugees and new migrants, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and anyone facing stigma or discrimination due to disability also experience these challenges in particularly significant and complex ways. Take the experience of Mary*, a woman in her 50s. Having spent time out of the workforce caring for her family, Mary’s employment prospects as a single, mature-age woman are limited to low-paying jobs. COVID-19 has left Mary’s job in doubt, and without her regular income she cannot pay her rent. Her lack of superannuation or other assets means she may rely on JobSeeker, but if the rate is returned to the pre-COVID-19 level she will not be able to make ends meet.
There is action that governments can take to help low-income mature-aged Australians like Mary in the aftermath of COVID-19 Our report makes 10 recommendations relating to social security, employment supports, housing and care:
- Address discrimination experienced by mature-age workers through practical reforms, including:
- better targeting of education, training and upskilling opportunities
- improving access to careers advice for mature-age workers at risk of involuntary retirement or unemployment
- strengthening policies that promote workplace flexibility, inclusive employment and retention practices, including government demonstrating leadership through public service employment policies such as the Collaborative Partnership on Mature Age Employment.
- Ensure mainstream employment services are adequately equipped to respond to the distinct needs of mature-age workers.
- Continue and expand targeted superannuation schemes to promote greater equity within the system and economic security in retirement.
- Ensure social security benefits remain above subsistence levels.
- Benchmark the liquid asset test for JobSeeker against median incomes.
- Index Commonwealth Rent Assistance (CRA) payments to movements in national rents to provide immediate relief from housing stress and prevent erosion of the payment.
- Improve security of tenure for renters, including by ending no-cause evictions and enabling reasonable home modifications to support people to age in their communities.
- Facilitate greater collaboration between Commonwealth, state and local governments to grow social housing through a sustained investment plan.
- Expand funding for social, financial and healthcare services available to mature-age and older people facing housing insecurity and/or homelessness as a result of COVID-19.
- Introduce block-funded community care coordination to identify mature-age people at risk and help them navigate systems, minimise crises, facilitate housing security and maintain connections.
All these will take time, so we have identified three short-term actions: government can provide financial support for utilities, public transport, medical services and supplies; it can deliver targeted communications so mature-age people can have clear information about how to get help; and it can boost funding to financial counselling to support mature-age low-income workers to make good decisions.
Amid the disruption caused by COVID-19, governments can make substantive changes to the way we support low-income mature-aged people before old policy habits – and old policy problems – return.
*Mary, and other case studies in our report, are composites to protect privacy.
Amber Mills is Senior Research Fellow in Inclusive Ageing at the Brotherhood of St Laurence, a social justice organisation that works across Australia to prevent and alleviate poverty. Suyin Ng is a Principal at Nous Group, an international management consultancy.