Centrelink Telephone Allowance for low-income Australians 'woefully inadequate'
When Wendy Crosland was hunting for a job, she did not wait by her phone or computer to hear if her applications had been successful.
Instead she travelled regularly on a bus to the closest job network, where she could access phone and internet services, two "essential services" she couldn't access from home at the time.
"I have definitely struggled with the cost of phone and internet services," Ms Crosland said. "Quite often I've gone for a week or two without a phone, living pay-to-pay just to get credit."
Ms Crosland's experience is all too familiar to the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) and the South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS), who today released a report highlighting the financial strain of telecommunications services on low-income consumers.
The report, Connectivity Costs: Telecommunications Affordability for Low-Income Australians, was based on focus groups and a survey of more than 500 Centrelink recipients and low-income Health Care Card holders.
It found that 62 per cent had reported difficulty paying, had to cut back or had stopped using one or more telecommunications services for financial reasons in the last 12 months.
"Increasingly the trend is for essential services to be delivered online. So if a consumer can't access the internet they are increasingly disadvantaged," said ACCAN director of policy Una Lawrence.
"This means the digital divide grows much larger."
Currently the main government support for telecommunications, offered to low income Australians is the Centrelink Telephone Allowance, which is a supplement to selected social security payments.
It is paid at a basic rate of $28.20 a quarter, a higher rate of $42.00 a quarter for eligible recipients.
However the Connectivity Costs report argues the allowance is "inadequate, and suffering from a legacy of being structured around home landline technology," with eligibility criteria that is "complex and opaque."
"We are calling for these arrangements to be reviewed, as they are quite clearly out of kilter with people today," Ms Lawrence said.
The report found those on Newstart and Youth Allowance were the most likely to struggle with telecommunications costs, and yet the latter had the lowest base rate and the most limited access to the telephone allowance scheme.
Ms Lawrence described the eligibility criteria as "very poorly targeted."
"The people who need it most have the least access...it is a woefully inadequate situation and it needs to be addressed."
As a single mother, Ms Crosland supports three children at her home in Shalvey, in Sydney's west, where internet access is "a necessity".
"I now work part-time and I am on Newstart, but phone and internet expenses are quite high. Now I have contracts for both internet at home and my mobile phone...to me, $28 a quarter is not realistic."
In 2015-16 more than 570,000 eligible income support recipients received a telephone allowance.
A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services said the allowance was a "supplementary payment" to assist with the costs of maintenance…"it is not intended to cover the full cost of telephone services," such as calls and internet data.
"Changes to telephone allowance would...need to be considered carefully by the government in a budget context," he said.
Janine Wall, Anglicare's sustainable living program manager, said inferior access to telecommunications could have far-reaching consequences beyond day-to-day inconvenience.
"Consider those who have to make calls about job applications, or finding accommodation…it could affect how they access their next rental property."
Ms Wall said low income Australians were increasingly abandoning landline services because the allowance barely contributed to the cheapest possible monthly line rental of $23.
"Most people are moving towards the use of pre-paid mobile phones...but if we want people to seek employment and improve their circumstances we need to enable them. "
Ms Lawrence said ACCAN was not suggesting an alternative allowance amount at this stage, however she noted that the majority of survey respondents felt "$60 a quarter" would make a significant difference.
The story Centrelink Telephone Allowance for low-income Australians 'woefully inadequate' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.