Fears welfare card holders could be left high and dry in bushfires
13 January 2020 at 4:41 pm
Welfare groups are calling for the cashless welfare card to be suspended during the bushfires
The frequent power outages across bushfire affected areas have seen residents rushing to ATMs to withdraw cash for essential items.
But concerns are rising for cashless welfare card participants, who if faced with power outages would be effectively stranded without any access to money.
The cashless welfare card – which locks 80 per cent of welfare payments onto a debit card and cannot be used to withdraw cash or be spent on alcohol or gambling – is currently being trialled in four regional areas of Australia.
On New Year’s Eve, bushfires caused around 25,000 homes and businesses in and around the trial site of Ceduna to lose power.
On Thursday, Kasey Chambers, the executive director of Anglicare Australia, called for the cashless welfare card to be “suspended indefinitely” for those affected by the bushfires, and for participants to receive their benefits directly.
“People must be able to get essential supplies to live and adapt in the wake of the bushfires,” Chambers said.
“With the power out and many outlets closed, people must be able to withdraw cash.”
Centrelink has faced a barrage of online criticism from people and welfare organisations on Twitter, with one social media user asking how someone on the welfare card could eat and feed their family when the power was down.
“Are they just expected to die?” they asked.
Centrelink responded to the concerns, advising people on the cashless welfare card to contact them.
Hi Deb, we've answered this question a few times recently. The Department of Social Services manages the Cashless Debit Card, so if anyone is in this situation they should contact the hotline for further info and help. Staff will discuss options based on their circumstances.
— Centrelink (@Centrelink) January 6, 2020
But Chambers said the response wasn’t good enough.
“With the power out and phones unavailable, contacting Centrelink is just not an option for people in the thick of the crisis,” she said.
The Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU) also slammed the response, saying its confidence in the government agency could not be lower.
“Our confidence in Centrelink’s ability to respond to scale of human misery resulting from the bushfire crisis, as the government agency with most influence as to who gets to rebuild their lives in the months and years to come, could not be lower,” the AUWU said on Twitter.
A Department for Social Services spokesperson told Pro Bono News that to date there had been no impact on cashless debit card terminal availability in trial sites as a result of this year’s fire season.
“The department continues to actively monitor the situation and will ensure that cashless debit card trial participants have access to their funds should there be an emergency situation in any of the trial sites,” the spokesperson said.
Calls for other exemptions and raises to welfare payments
The cashless welfare card crisis comes as Australia’s peak welfare body, the Australian Council for Social Services, called on the federal government to immediately raise the Disaster Recovery Payment – which is a one-off tax-free payment for individuals seriously affected by a natural disaster.
In a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie called for the payment to be raised from $1,000 to $3,000 and from $400 per child to $1,000 per child. The payment has not been raised in 14 years.
“We are very concerned that the current Disaster Recovery Payment is seriously inadequate, particularly for people on lower incomes and with fewer assets, family and friends to secure transport, alternative housing options and immediate recovery resources,” Goldie said.
Morrison announced on Sunday that the government had already paid out $40 million in various forms of disaster assistance to more than 30,000 people, with another $40 million paid to affected councils.