$47 per fortnight.
That's the amount of money 40-year-old Launceston man Trevor* had to buy food before the COVID-19 supplement kicked in at the start of the pandemic.
He was receiving a Newstart payment - now JobSeeker - while paying rent, child support, bills and feeding his dog.
He also relied on the St Vincent De Paul Society to be able to eat seven days a week.
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"I depended on the charities and I used the $47, with the assistance they gave me, to do a shop," he said.
"I'd borrow money off my family or friends and I'd never give it back, and I think they were aware that I'd never be able to pay it back.
"Then your self-worth is just diminished when you're begging."
For Trevor, his life was not always lived while at the bottom of an empty soup can.
He is a qualified electrician and once worked a full time job in the trade. He had a partner, and children.
But he went through a separation and lost both of his children to child services before turning to drugs and finding himself financially and socially fractured.
Trevor said the separation and loss of his kids exacerbated an underlying medical condition that has impacted his ability to interact socially and made it difficult for him to retain employment.
He has since been medicated for the condition, but his medication leaves him "muted".
"Before, it was many behaviours from the condition that were affecting work, and now that I'm on medication, the medication is stronger than any drug I've taken in my whole life," he said.
"Waking up at nine o'clock is a challenge and a half. I can do it, but it takes an hour-and-a-half to wake up where you should just be able to wake up to an alarm."
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When the coronavirus subsidy was introduced in March he no longer needed the assistance of Vinnies.
Prior to the pandemic Newstart would offer recipients $565.70 plus a rental and energy assistance of about $143.60.
That was supplemented by a $550 COVID-19 assistance payment from March until September last year, then $250 from September until January, and $150 from January until March this year. It is due to be removed altogether from March 31.
With an extra $550, Trevor said he lived what he felt was a reasonable life.
"From March until December, I didn't come [to Vinnies] at all. [With the subsidy] you could survive at least," he said.
Even when the payment was cut to $250 Trevor was able to live on his own accord, but since being cut again to $150 he has had to again return to Vinnies for their assistance.
Prior to the start of the subsidy, Trevor had developed a resilience to eating "the staples" or being left flat broke by having to pay his Aurora bill over eight years. As a result he is realistic about what lies ahead, but that does not mean he is not worried.
"I'm not looking forward to it [the coronavirus subsidy being removed]. If it goes back, it'll be straight back to $47 a fortnight. It'll be straight back to eating staples and stressing out," he said.
Having experienced what it was like to have an extra either $550 or $250 in his pocket, to feel his worries start to evaporate and to have a full stomach every day, he is confident of the amount needed to enable people to not just "get by" when they have fallen into a hole.
"$250 would make it liveable. You wouldn't be able to save or do anything like that, but at least you'd be able to make ends meet and not eat canned food, at least you'd be able to eat fresh food," he said.
"There's no safety net with the lowest rate."
And the safety net extends beyond finances. Where a small mistake for someone with a strong support network might mean having to skip morning coffee, for Trevor it could be anything from being unable to eat, to relapsing into addiction and losing his connections.
"All it is is one bad choice and you're back to where you were straight away," he said.
A spokesperson for Vinnies said Trevor's story was not unique and they had seen a trend whereby those who were afforded the COVID-19 supplement payments disengaged with services because they no longer needed them.
"About 95 per cent of those faces we see that are on JobSeeker/Newstart went away," they said.
Now, Vinnies are seeing many of those faces that left in March to return, and are expecting new faces who had been staying afloat on the JobKeeper subsidy which is due to cease on March 28.
And with those faces they are preparing for a new set of challenges.
"Newstart cases, traditionally, are a lot of people that we get to meet - so it's covering for a lot of the necessities. But we're expecting to see much more complex cases like housing arrears, large utility accounts, all of that sort of thing if JobKeeper goes down," they said.
As of March last year the Australian poverty line was $1098.60. $389.30 higher than what the JobSeeker payment will return to at the end of March.
Newstart/JobSeeker has not been permanently increased above the rate of inflation since 1994. The oldest available information from the Australian government show that in 1996 the base rate for Newstart was $316.70 per fortnight. Currently, without the energy and rent assistance, that rate is $565.70.
In 1996, the poverty line was $392.84.
*Name changed for privacy reasons.
- St Vincent De Paul Society 1800 351 063
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