This is part four of a five-part series about the crisis in our country communities. Today Peter Devlin looks at the trap of welfare dependency, and the lack of services, jobs and infrastructure that can keep people in the country stuck in poverty.

The unemployment rate in regional Australia has risen to 7.3 per cent, a 12 year high as job demand continues to shift to major cities. With few jobs and fewer opportunities in country towns, an increasing amount of rural Aussies are relying on government welfare.

In Wellington work is hard come by, says pensioner Darren Elwood. “There are no jobs, no one is going to invest in a town with no infrastructure,” he says.

Target is the latest company to pull out of Wellington. Lynn Fields, founder of the Nguumambiny Corporation, blames this on increasing council rates. “Target wasn’t viable; our council was trying to make money without looking at the big picture. Twenty more people are out of work now, and in a town like Wellington that’s a lot of jobs,” she says.

Fourteen-year-old local Jack Dent hasn’t had to seriously think about a job yet but says he doesn’t fancy his chances in Wellington. “There are a lot of people on the dole, can’t you tell just from looking around here,” he says, as he points to the empty building that Target once occupied. Wellington’s unemployment rate currently sits at 13.5 per cent, more than double the national average.

The mechanisation of the agricultural industry, high rates of drug use and a lack of education have contributed to this figure, says Alison Conn, manager of the Wellington Information and Neighbour Service (WINS) and local council member. “Education hasn’t been important for a lot of the people who are unemployed,” she says. But if you’re an employer, you’re going to hire someone who has completed Year 12, not someone that left school in Year 7. It’s cyclical generational poverty,” she says.

Darren Elwood says many children in the Wellington community plan to sell drugs because they see it as a way out of poverty. “Kids are looking up to drug dealers who are driving around in flash cars, or their children might be riding a new bike; some of them have been able to move to Dubbo,” he says.

Darren says the drug dealers have further increased the poverty cycle, “by parasitising off those already too poor to give a shit”.

Photo: Peter Devlin.

Photo: Peter Devlin.

Joe Hockey’s advice to first homebuyers is ‘get a good job’. However, for many of Wellington’s residents getting any job, let alone a good one, is a struggle, particularly for those on welfare. “

The Government says to get a job – and that’s fine – but if you live in Wellington you have to travel,” says Darren. With jobs drying up, jobseekers are looking for work in the surrounding major regional centres such as Dubbo and Orange.

Darren describes his current unemployment situation. “What’s the point in even getting a job? I’d have to travel over 100km. To some people that might not seem like a lot, but if I have to find $70 for fuel just to go to a job interview, that’s $70 that I’m not feeding my children with.”

While a lack of jobs and a methamphetamine epidemic may cause people to leave rural areas of NSW, it is these very social and economic issues that have brought down the living cost in ‘undesirable’ country towns such as Wellington.

Darren Elwood says people who are already disadvantaged have moved from major cities in Australia to places such as Wellington where living costs are perceivably cheaper, exacerbating the poverty cycle. “They can’t afford $300 a week Sydney rent, so they have to come out here, where there’s no work,” he says.

What’s the point in even getting a job? I’d have to travel over 100km. To some people that might not seem like a lot, but if I have to find $70 for fuel just to go to a job interview, that’s $70 that I’m not feeding my children with.

Darren Elwood.

Welfare dependency is a trap, says Alison Conn, and many of Wellington’s residents are caught in it. “Welfare is just not enough to live in order to pull yourself out of where you are. Even if you want to work, it’s pretty depressing not being able to get work; and not having enough money to get in a car and drive to a job interview makes it harder. It’s a cycle,” she says.

Other factors contributing to welfare dependency in rural Australia include poor public transport, inadequate and expensive childcare, mismatched skills, and negative employer attitudes to people disadvantaged in the labour market. “Communities like Wellington find it extremely hard to get support from anywhere; if you’re Indigenous, or on welfare you’re put down before you even get a step up,” Darren Elwood says.

According to Darren, many people have become complacent with welfare in Wellington and have given up looking for work altogether. Alison Conn has worked for WINS for over 10 years; many of her clients are unemployed. She says this welfare dependency in Wellington spans generations. “We have inter-generational poverty here; you’re looking at up to four or five generations that haven’t worked. It’s not part of their lifestyle; they don’t comprehend working,” Ms Conn says.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, people living in rural areas tend to have shorter lives and higher levels of illness and disease risk factors than those in major cities. Welfare dependency further decreases these conditions, says Alison Conn. “There’s a lot of people here on welfare that are doing it rough or are even homeless. I get between five and 10 people in here a week who don’t have a bed to sleep on,” she says.

Farren Hotham, managing editor of The Wellington Times, believes the way in which welfare recipients spend their payments in Wellington is a concern. “Some drink and smoke it, others use it to buy drugs,” he says. According to Lynn Fields, of the Nguumambiny Corporation, some welfare recipients are actually manufacturing and selling the drugs. “Welfare is intended to support people while they don’t have income, but the thing that annoys me is that there are people on income support who are dealing drugs and making three or four times more a week than me,” she says.

Regional Australia has not experienced unemployment rates this high since March 2003, when rural NSW recorded the largest increase in jobless rates in the first quarter of the year. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the future does not look bright for pockets of unemployed people concentrated in particular areas, particularly those where long-term unemployment is becoming entrenched. Such concentrations are found throughout western NSW.

The Australian Long-Term Unemployment Conference will be held on the 9th and 10th of November in Melbourne, and will focus on improving transitions for job seekers to help them achieve positive outcomes.

Tomorrow: Down but not out: fighting for a future