Take a reality check with a walk on the other side

In a world where reality television has a powerful impact on reality, maybe a TV show would focus attention on the real situation of Australia's unemployed. It'd be kind of like SBS's successful Go Back to Wear You Came From. Maybe it could be called Is This Really How We Want to Be?

Almost 13 per cent of the population, 2,265,000 Australians, live below the poverty line. Of those, 62 per cent depend on social security benefits, according to a recent report on poverty.

Almost every submission to the Senate inquiry on the adequacy of unemployment benefits - every welfare group, every expert, even the Business Council of Australia - says Newstart, now $246 a week for a single unemployed person without children, is woefully inadequate.

It is so low, according to the business council, that it ''presents a barrier to employment and risks entrenching poverty'' because ''job-seekers are severely disadvantaged in their ability to maintain active job search and present themselves decently for job interviews''.

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Even accepting the argument, as both major parties do, that unemployment benefits need to be low to act as an incentive for people to return to work, the current level - about 42 per cent of the minimum wage - is seen almost universally as cruelly insufficient.

The other justification often given for the present level is that unemployment payments are only ever meant to be temporary.

With Australia's low unemployment rate - still not much over 5 per cent - this is often true.

But two-thirds of people receiving Newstart have been on the payment for more than a year. Hey, maybe that's why they are poor. The average duration of unemployment for over-45s is 62 weeks.

Yes, the Gillard government has introduced many incentives - training, special child-care arrangements and wage subsidies for the long-term unemployed. But the reality is that it hasn't been enough for a significant number of people.

Anglicare estimates 45,000 people using their emergency relief services don't have enough money to feed their families. And, guess what, they are also most likely to depend on benefits.

Rising electricity prices are also disproportionately hard on the poor. The NSW Energy and Power Ombudsman is pleading with the federal government to convene a roundtable on ''energy poverty'' because the biggest power price rises are due to the fixed cost increases of poles and wires which cannot be reduced by lowering usage.

But none of the lobbying has worked. Even the impact of power prices is a no-go zone because Labor doesn't want to admit that energy costs are hurting lest someone mention the carbon tax, and the Coalition doesn't want to talk about anything other than the tax.

The truth is that the dole is not a vote winner. And the Treasurer and shadow treasurer can both see the bottom falling out of government revenue.

Increasing Newstart by $50 a week would cost about $2 billion a year. Even indexing benefits in the same, more generous, way that pensions are indexed appears financially out of reach.

With both sides of politics scrabbling for budget savings, proposals for more big new spending is like suggesting they fly to the moon.

But the moon is about how far away the lives of people on unemployment benefits seem from politicians or journalists or most people with jobs.

Maybe that would change with a reality television show in which prominent politicians and others try to live on the dole.

The general idea is not new. In Britain in 2003, former conservative minister Michael Portillo swapped his Belgravia lifestyle to live a week in the life of a single mother of four, who worked two jobs to make ends meet, in Merseyside.

When Michael Portillo Became a Single Mum was reasonable TV - in fact watching him in the supermarket was priceless - and it made its point about the challenges of low-wage living.

''For someone like me, who's never had to think about these things, it's just boring having to think all the time about how you buy the cheapest things and whether the money's going to last. That's a completely new experience and I can't say in any way that it's an agreeable one. It isn't. It's horrible,'' he said after feeding his temporary family on just under £80 a week.

''Welcome to the real world,'' the children's mother replied.

In April, Greens senator Rachel Siewart tried to live for a week on Newstart, then $244 a week.

She had $11 left after budgeting for rent, power, gas, phone credit, transport and food - but she'd run out of food by week's end and later realised she hadn't really set enough aside for rent or power.

''I had no financial capacity for a range of co-contribution for medical treatments, long-term bills like car registration or insurance, any form of social or sporting activity, clothing, personal care products, household items, savings and emergency money and so on,'' she wrote of her experience.

Perhaps attitudes would change if we really thought about what it would be like to do a weekly family shop on a benefits budget, or talked to parents who have to refuse their children school excursions, or a haircut, or any kind of treat.

On a reality television show we might meet people like Tracey, who wrote this poem published in a book of verse and prose by unemployed people submitted as evidence to the committee by Jobs Australia.

''I haven't seen a film for 8-9 years. It's $12 - I just can't. I have no social life unless it's free. I can't afford to go to a cafe and drink coffee - I just can't. I tried putting $3 a day into my budget. I felt a little more human, existing within society … I had to stop doing it, I couldn't live anymore. Like being invited out to dinner or a friend saying, 'do you want to catch up for a meal?' I just can't, no. I miss it.''

Just possibly, national spending priorities and choices might start to look different if those comfortably in the workforce faced that kind of reality and thought about whether it was the way we really wanted Australia to be.

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