Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Don't forget those the pandemic leaves out in the cold

After a fortnight's patriotic duty swanning round the backblocks of the state dispensing modest monetary good cheer – and discovering we were far from the only cityslickers doing it – it's back to a city plunged into renewed foreboding. The greatest concern is the pandemic's returning risk to our lives but, for me, this worsens rather than detracts attention from the great economic cost: protracted unemployment. A second wave of the virus would bring a double-dip recession.

When Treasurer Josh Frydenberg – a man so committed to looking on the bright side he's positively Pythonesque – feels it his duty to advise that the official unemployment rate of 7.1 per cent is actually an effective rate of 13.3 per cent once you allow for the peculiarities of the lockdown, you know we must be in deep trouble.

He wouldn't be issuing such a warning if he didn't need to prepare us for next week's mini-budget, which the setbacks in Melbourne and Sydney will have caused to be a lot less penny-pinching than earlier planned.

Where before Scott Morrison might have told himself the worst was over and it was time to start limiting the damage to his precious budget, now he must keep the money flowing so as to limit the damage to the livelihoods of many workers and their families.

Back in March, many of the government's initial measures to limit the economic damage caused by his harsh but unavoidable efforts to stop the spread of the virus – including the innovative JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme and JobSeeker's doubling of the rate of unemployment benefits – were timed to last six months and so end in late September.

The mini-budget's main purpose is to announce what will happen after that. A point to remember is that these measures don't just directly relieve the financial pressure on people who've lost their jobs, they benefit all of us indirectly by injecting additional money into the economy, which then flows through many hands – shopkeepers and workers alike – keeping the economy moving and thus limiting the further rise in joblessness.

A further thing to remember is that the unemployed don't only need money to help them keep body and soul together and feed their families (not to mention money to keep their mobile working, travel to job interviews and be appropriately dressed), they also need help finding another job.

The terrible thing about recessions is that they throw the economy up in the air, so to speak, and what eventually comes down is different to what went up. Recessions accelerate the changing structure of the economy. The industries and occupations change, with some contracting and others expanding.

So the jobs move, and employers' demand for particular occupations changes. Even with assistance from the wonders of the internet, many workers need help to locate a new job, need guidance to give up on industry A and try industry B, or even help to retrain for a job in another occupation where demand is greater.

After a severe recession, it can take a year or more before the quantity of goods and services produced each quarter has returned to where it was before it started falling, and several years before it gets back to where it would have been had the recession not happened.

But it takes longer for employment to return to where it was and far longer for unemployment to fall. After the last recession, the number of people on unemployment benefits fell by almost half, from a peak of 890,000 in 1993 to 464,000. But get this: it took 14 years.

If that wasn't bad enough, in that time, the number of recipients who'd been on the dole for more than a year fell by only 20 per cent to 276,000.

One lesson from this is that it's the unemployed who'll bear most of the economic cost of this pandemic, however long it lasts. It will take longer than you may think for people who lose their jobs to find another. While they're out in the cold, we who've kept our jobs have a moral obligation to ensure they're given a reasonable sum to live on, as well as a lot of help finding a new berth.

Many will find a job within a month or two, but some will take much longer. And the longer it takes, the less likely it becomes. These are people who deserve extra help to avoid getting stuck in the mud at the bottom of the unemployment pool, and we should give it.

Last week the Australian Council of Social Service called for JobKeeper to be phased down only gradually, and for the JobSeeker payment to be increased permanently by at least $185 a week, which would lift it to the rate of the age and other pensions.

The focus of Centrelink and the Job Network should be switched from penalising the jobless for concocted infringements to actually helping them find jobs and retrain. It's the least we should do.