• The number of women aged 65-75 describing themselves as homeless increased by 51 per cent in the five years to 2016. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
What happens when you're not quite old enough for the pension but too old in the eyes of most employers?
Nicola Heath

31 Jul 2019 - 4:25 PM  UPDATED 16 Aug 2021 - 3:17 PM

For most Australians ordering a flat white at a café is a daily ritual that is taken for granted.

But for some, that flat white is a budget-breaking luxury.

Anita Shirley, a 64-year-old Sydney artist, has been unemployed for more than a decade. She is one of the roughly 180,000 Australians aged over 55 who receive the Newstart Allowance, a government-funded income support payment for people who are looking for work. 

Shirley, who arrived in Australia from Uruguay in 1991, lives in a unit in St George Community Housing in Hurstville, a development that provides social and affordable housing for people on low incomes who are experiencing rental stress in the private market.

“It’s very good for me,” she says. “It’s impossible to pay rent at the moment.” 

Shirley scrapes by on her fortnightly Newstart payment. The amount she receives comes to $438 after rent is deducted.

“When I shop for food, I am very careful because $438 is nothing,” she says.

Shirley's grocery budget ranges between $50 and $80 a fortnight, depending on whether she has an electricity or water bill due. She avoids red meat, sticking instead to cheaper ingredients like vegetables and chicken, and cooks bulk meals at home.

“When I shop for food, I am very careful because $438 is nothing.” 

She often shops at The Food Pantry, a low-cost grocer run by Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville, where she also regularly volunteers.

Shirley says when a friend asks her if she wants to grab a coffee at a café or invited to the cinema, she has to say no. 

“I say, ‘no, I have another commitment’, but the truth is that I have no money to pay for my ticket.”

She acknowledges that some may view a visit to the movies or a café as an extravagance but argues that social connection is vital for mental health.

“I think it’s necessary to be in contact with other people."

"You can’t do this when you have a low income,” she says. “You have to say no to everything.” 

She buys her clothes secondhand or waits for clearance sales, and always researches the lowest price for an item before making a purchase. Still, despite her careful budgeting, she’s often left short.

“Sometimes when I don’t have enough money, my daughter helps me,” she says. “It’s very distressing when you don’t know if you can make it to the end of the month and buy the basic things you need.”

Under the Newstart Allowance, a single person with no children receives $555.70 a fortnight, or $277.85 a week. If you're over 60, that allowance is $601.01 per fortnight after nine continuous months on payment. Still, it’s a sum that falls far below the poverty line, currently $433 a week, leading to calls on the government to raise the Newstart Allowance for the first time since 1994. 

“It’s very distressing when you don’t know if you can make it to the end of the month and buy the basic things you need.”

Many people on Newstart, particularly those in the private rental market, struggle to make ends meet.

According to a recent ACOSS survey, 84 per cent of  people on Newstart report regularly skipping meals. Many also avoid using heating and cooling and, like Shirley, buy secondhand goods.

One 55-year-old woman, who did not wish to be named, says she frequently skips meals and has had to resort to shoplifting to survive on the allowance.

Unemployed for a decade, her health issues, including Grave’s disease and depression, have prevented her from finding a new job. Her application for the Disability Support Pension, a much higher payment at $926.20 per fortnight, has been rejected five times. 

Her experience is not uncommon. In 2017-18, Centrelink approved just 30 per cent of DSP applications. The result is that around one in four Newstart recipients is deemed to have a ‘partial work capacity’ due to mental or physical illness or disability, adding yet another obstacle to their search for employment. 

Shirley says that despite that fact that she’s healthy and willing to work, finding a job has been impossible. Her last paid role was packing jewellery at a factory in 2007.

Since then, she has tried unsuccessfully to find work through job agencies. One problem is the number of applicants vying for each vacancy. It’s not unusual, she says, to see that more than 300 people have applied for one job.

Ageism is another obstacle to job seekers in their fifties and sixties. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Willing to Work report found that more than one in four people aged over 50 reported experiencing age discrimination at work.

Older people also face longer periods of unemployment. In 2015, the average duration of unemployment for mature age workers was 68 weeks, compared with 30 weeks for 15- to 24-year-olds and 49 weeks for 25- to 54-year-olds.

It leaves people like Shirley – not old enough to qualify for the pension but too old in the eyes of most employers – in a tough position.

“The first question is, ‘how old are you?’” says Shirley. “No one wants to give someone my age a job.”

Nicola Health is a freelance writer. You can follow Nicola on Twitter on @nicoheath.

These videos were produced in partnership with SBS and the University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use, Social Policy Research Centre, and Charles Sturt University.

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