With the change of season upon us we also have a change in our lockdown restrictions. The winter chill is here but hopefully this will be offset with an increased warmth in our hearts brought about by interactions with friends and families now possible with the easing of restrictions.
In the words of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’. With change comes hope. Hope that things will be better somehow. That Jobseeker will get fixed. That we as a nation will restructure our economy to be greener, and kinder to the less privileged – our clients amongst them.
These changes may or may not come about in our country, but at the very least, it looks like financial counselling will continue to extend its reach and grow as a sector. This means a bigger voice and greater impact.
Whilst there has been a dip in referrals for a lot of agencies, the feeling out there is that what we are experiencing is comparable to a tsunami. Currently the water has receded, and we are bracing for when it surges back in. All indications are that economically the hard times are ahead, especially when people exhaust their hardship with the banks, and JobSeeker and JobKeeper are rolled back. So it’s time to batten down the hatches and prepare ourselves for what is coming.
If we can be grateful for something it is that we have time to prepare for what is coming. We can also feel grateful that both State and Federal Governments are looking to our sector to be part of the solution.
FCVic is receiving funding in a package developed by the Department of Health & Human Services, as part of the State Government’s response to COVID-19, to help flatten the mental health decline curve. It is well established that there is a comorbidity between financial hardship and poor mental health outcomes. This opportunity reflects increasing recognition of financial counselling as an essential social support service and an opportunity to not only lift mental health skills and knowledge of financial counsellors, but to include financial counselling as part of mental health services as we advocated in our submission to the Victorian Government’s Royal Commission into Mental Health. On top of this financial counselling was recognized in an energy support package developed by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. This includes funding for additional financial counsellors, and for FCVic to coordinate and advocate on energy issues. There is hope that we will secure further funding to assist with other pressure points for our clients in the coming weeks.
FCVic and its Board are mindful that now, in the lull, it is time to get our house in order and as such Sandy has written to the heads of the financial counselling agencies in Victoria, following up on the Counting the Costs report and seeking their assistance in making sure things are sustainable and workloads are safe for when the waters come rushing back in.
When the waters come back in and people are thrown in the deep end, we will need to line up all the supports we can to help people in hardship stay afloat.
Included in the report are a number of case studies illustrating how financial counsellors have worked closely with SSRV lawyers in relation to client matters. Helena’s story below is one of those. Integrated approaches to client services and collaborative work on systemic advocacy issues are key priorities for the ISP in year two.
Helena is a survivor of cancer. She has arthritis, severe depression, anxiety and several other serious health conditions. She cannot work due to poor health. She lives week to week, has no savings and survives on a minimal income insurance payment.
Several years ago Helena applied to Centrelink for the Disability Support Pension (DSP). Centrelink rejected her application. However, on appeal the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) found her eligible for the DSP. Helena commenced receiving payments. The Secretary of the Department of Human Services then appealed the AAT decision and won. Helena’s benefit was cancelled and she was left with no ability to work, no social security and a Centrelink debt of greater than $10,000 to pay back.
The existence of the debt caused Helena severe financial hardship and drastically affected her mental health. Helena asked SSRV for help. SSRV helped Helena appeal the debt at the AAT. In preparation for the AAT hearing, an SSRV lawyer and the SSRV financial counsellor worked with Helena to put together arguments about her financial hardship and personal vulnerability.
During the hearing, the AAT Member heard arguments from Helena’s SSRV lawyer about why it was appropriate to waive the debt. The AAT found there were special circumstances to warrant waiving the entire debt – noting Helena’s significant financial hardship, the profound negative impact on her mental health and that even if the debt were reduced to a minimal repayment of $15 a fortnight it would take many years to repay.
Helena told us – “I was worried, stressed and confused about where I was going to find the money to pay back the Centrelink debt. It took an emotional toll on me and my family. The debt meant I struggled to pay my bills on a fortnightly basis. Sometimes I had the money but sometimes I didn’t. I had to get help from my adult daughter the majority of the time. I had a very tight budget.
I didn’t understand why they had been raised, and I felt very judged. Without help from the SSRV lawyer and financial counsellor I would still be stuck in a position where I’d have to pay off the debt. Now that the debt has been waived I don’t have to worry about how I was ever going to pay it off. I don’t have to worry about how to find the money each fortnight to keep up the payments. Knowing that I am debt free has lifted a burden off my shoulders. I can finally breathe again. I am able to go to bed at night and wake up the next morning knowing that the debt is not there. I feel happy and relieved, walking around with the biggest smile on my face.
Further case studies can be found in the report which is now available on the SSRV website. The report provides a detailed outline of project implementation, learnings, outcomes and recommendations for year two.
The ISP offers the opportunity to focus on the points at which integrated legal/financial counselling service provision may benefit vulnerable Victorians in their engagement with the social security system. The report shows that integrated service provision can take a variety of forms and that it can have significant benefit for shared clients.
Both SSRV and FCVic are keen to receive your feedback about the report and the matters it addresses.
Worker Help Line – 0429 450 346 or 03 9481 0655
Financial counsellors are invited to call the SSRV Worker Help Line, Monday to Thursday, 9.00am- 5.00pm, for information and support in assisting clients with Centrelink matters and to make referrals to SSRV.
General Advice Line – 0419 793 652 or 03 9481 0355
Individuals can be referred the SSRV General Advice Line, which is operating between 9.30am -12.30pm, Monday to Thursday.
Keep an eye out for upcoming social security law and integrated practice professional development and resources.
Get in touch – please contact Karl (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Patricia (email@example.com) to discuss the ISP and related services and activities. We are keen to hear from financial counsellors about how the COVID-19 crisis and government/other responses are impacting upon your clients and communities and their engagement with the social security system.