Grandmother’s anger over Newstart changes

AT 59, Elizabeth Birkett feels like she should be winding down.

Instead, the diabetic and sole carer of her grandson has increased her work hours, could lose her health care card and has given up her grandparent carers support group, her funeral fund and the internet.

January’s changes to Centrelink payments saw Mrs Birkett put on Newstart allowance instead of her former parenting payment, dramatically cutting her assistance and forcing her to take on extra shifts at St Patrick’s College.

Her increased hours mean she could become ineligible for her health care card — increasing her medication costs by hundreds of dollars a month — and has caused her to quit her grandparent carers group.

“I don’t want handouts or anything,” Mrs Birkett said yesterday from her central Ballarat home.

“I want us carers to live a decent life and not to be made to feel like we’re nothing again.

“I’ve worked hard all my life. I did three jobs when I raised my kids so they could play sport.”

Mrs Birkett said she now wanted to slow down, especially with arthritis starting to severely affect her joints.

She gained custody of her grandson Jaiden White, now 11, when he was two due to his parents’ substance abuse issues, and moved from Perth to her hometown of Ballarat to raise him with her three brothers’ support.

Mrs Birkett now relies on friends to help her get Jaiden to school at St Alipius Primary School and to football and soccer.

“He’s going to high school next year, which will be added costs, but even now he still has to be fed and clothed and he’s growing at the rate of knots.”

She said the payment changes had affected nearly everyone in the carers support group, which also includes aunts and uncles who have custody of nieces and nephews.

Mrs Birkett was also told she had to attend an employment service provider as part of her Newstart conditions, even though she already has a job, but this has since been reversed.

She also said losing her health care card would push her car registration up to the full amount and cancel her gas and electricity bill concessions.

She also had to cancel trips to New Zealand for her younger brother’s wedding and an annual train trip to Brisbane with Jaiden.

“I can’t even save now.”

Ballarat MP Catherine King said she understood Mrs Birkett was in difficult circumstances and the Newstart changes had placed some pressure on her. 

“Government members, including me, appreciate there are a range of concerns about these changes and these have been raised in Caucus,” Ms King said. 

“These reforms are aimed at making the system equal for all parents or carers on single parenting income and, of course, we would always encourage people to work rather than rely on Newstart. 

“But we remain anxious to get the balance right between encouraging people to work and providing them and their families with the security they need. 

“In the meantime a million Australians will benefit from the Income Support Bonus which will provide more than $1.1 billion in extra payments over the next four years. 

“Starting today it will assist people who receive income support allowance payments (including Newstart clients) to manage unexpected cost of living expenses.” 

For more information, contact Centrelink on 13 28 50.

fiona.henderson@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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