Australians facing poverty are more likely to be restricted with services like Centrelink because of the technology divide, a senate inquiry has heard.
Poverty and social services advocates shared their experiences with the federal government’s community affairs references committee in Brisbane on Tuesday.
Basic Rights Queensland practice director Sam Tracy said technology-based government resources could be one of the biggest barriers for many people trying to access services.
People facing homelessness are less likely to have access to digital resources needed to get Centrelink payments, a senate inquiry has heard. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Luis Enrique Ascui
Mr Tracy said many people seeking benefits or assistance from government agencies like Centrelink did not have the digital literacy to access the right services.
“These systems are difficult at the best of times for educated people who understand using technology,” he said.
“There has to be options for people — the door to the government isn’t there for a lot of people in regional areas but also for people in the cities is difficult with digital literacy.”
The committee heard evidence that Centrelink services had been streamlined during the pandemic and users had found it easier to access needed benefits.
Janet Rice, Greens Senator for Victoria, is chairing the committee looking at extent and nature of poverty in Australia. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman
Anti-Poverty Network Queensland national liaison Jayden Oxton-White said the current system was “intentionally difficult” for users.
He said those streamlined services had since reverted back to pre-pandemic now that lockdowns had ended and people were again dealing with the “digital divide”.
“It showed how cruel the system can be for people who are dependent on it,” he said.
YFS chief executive Catherine Bartolo said during this period when benefits were increased to assist with those accessing Centrelink, many people had enough money to buy food and purchase everyday items “for the first time”.
Ms Bartolo said those accessing YFS services declined by 60 per cent during the height of Covid lockdowns because of the government’s income support increased.
She said this allowed YFS to focus its attention on other areas, including improving digital literacy among its clients.
“The coronavirus brought out the digital divide, we were able to supply people with computers and that actually set them up to learn more about computers,” Ms Bartolo said.
“There’s a barrier for people who are poor and (can’t pay) for internet expenses.”
Poverty advocates are calling on the government to provide more options for people to access Centrelink to help those who are digitally illiterate. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Joel Carrett
Nicholas Whitman, who also works at Anti-Poverty Network Queensland, told the committee on Tuesday the reality of people living pay check to pay check or without money at all could be struggling.
He said while many CBDs provided free Wi-Fi, those needing to access online services come up against many challenges day to day that many people might not consider.
“Over in Southbank (in Brisbane) in the state library the Wi-Fi is so location based, a lot of people are set up in the houseless community but they’re often moved on,” Mr Whitman said.
“If the police see them loitering along Southbank they’ll be moved on, so to have access to the state funded resources they face barriers sometimes.
“One of our members is putting together a list of where there’s free Wi-Fi and you can hang out at.
“We’d love someone to run technology classes but that’s just not in our capabilities.”
Friends with Dignity chief executive Manuela Whitford said the government needed to look at streamlining services to ensure providers weren’t overlapping offerings to clients.
More people were able to access Centrelink benefits during the lockdowns across the country thanks to a streamlining of processes. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Adam Yip
She said this would ensure clients would be able to get the required assistance they needed in a timely manner.
“We work in silos, we need to work and collaborate more to see what everyone is doing and doing it properly,” she said.
“If we’re not sharing that load, we’re not doing it well.”
Queensland Council of Social Service policy and research manager Gayatri Ramnath told the committee having another doorway for users to access services that wasn’t digitally focused would empower many people to access those services.
Dr Ramnath said literacy issues, impacts of racism, trauma and mental health were all barriers but those could be managed if the right mechanisms were in place.
“It makes your job incredibly easy when you have a person participating in the system,” Dr Ramnath said.
“Even when someone’s feeling empowered, the number of times they have to have go to get (assistance) they start to think ‘what’s the point of doing this because I’m still going to be short of money by the end of the week’.
“We know people with low incomes are really good at household budgets but we just find they don’t have enough money.”
The committee will report its finding to the senate on October 31 next year.