VCOSS recently published its 2016-17 State Budget Submission: Putting people back in the picture. A series of blogs will examine some of the proposals in the submission.
Despite an increase in average living standards in Australia, not everyone is benefiting. People earning low incomes, especially those renting, experience greater living cost increases and slower income growth than people on high incomes.
Between 1995 and 2012 the real incomes of Australia’s top 5 per cent of income earners increased on average by more than $2,000 each week, while for the lowest 20 per cent of income earners, the average weekly increase was less than $200. At the same time, the cost of living is rising faster for low-income households, with the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling estimating in its 2013 Household Budget report, that in the five years to 2013, low-income households experienced a 12 per cent increase in the cost of living, while high-income households only experienced a 7.5 per cent increase.
The emergency relief sector is important in developing responses to financial hardship. Emergency relief is ‘the last safety net’ for people in financial crisis, supplementing assistance given by other support services and cushioning those who fall through service delivery gaps. It also plays a major role referring clients to relevant support services, including housing assistance, family violence support services, financial counselling and youth services.
Currently the emergency relief sector is largely comprised of small community-run agencies with minimal budgets, relying almost exclusively on volunteers to assess and assist clients in crisis with complex needs. Federal funding provides money for disbursement to clients, and local governments frequently provide office space and funding for (often part-time) paid coordinators. These organisations do an amazing job: in the last four months of 2015 the CISVic (Community Information & Support Victoria) Consortium of small emergency relief providers gave emergency financial assistance worth $766,053 to 13,643 individuals and families.
In addition to this direct assistance, these organisations provide information and referral services for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people, working closely with local support services as well as Department of Health and Human Services funded services for clients with complex needs. However their capacity is limited by insufficient funds for both direct assistance for clients and organisational infrastructure and operations.
This is exacerbated by recent state and federal government changes to financial counselling and emergency relief programs that have led to more centralised service delivery, leaving many households, especially in regional areas, much further away from support services. Smaller local organisations, some with long histories and deep local connections, have lost funding
The Victorian Government can help prevent people entering financial hardship by establishing a state-based emergency relief program to add capacity to existing services which are struggling with capacity. This would provide under-resourced agencies with additional relief funds and additional operational resources, where needed, would help rebalance supply to demand, improve access, and strengthen service integration.
 Community Information and Support Victoria, The last safety net, accessed 1 November 2015, http://cisvic.org.au/publications/last-safety-net