15 August 2018

Recently the Fix Pension Poverty team met with Terry Curran of the Central Queensland Financial Counselling Service, to better understand the experiences of people on the Age Pension who are struggling in Rockhampton. Terry was kind to let us write up the discussion for this blogpost.

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Central Queensland is a diverse range of regional cities and regional towns, with different locations being affected by different economic factors.

“Recently, Gladstone had the second highest rate of bankruptcies in Queensland. The region has suffered from the mining downturn. There have been some signs of a recovery, not so much in Gladstone, but certainly Rockhampton” according to Terry.

“During the boom, there were a lot of jobs in the mining sector, with high levels of income and people back into work. However a lot of older workers are excluded from those jobs because of strict physical tests. It is physically demanding work. A lot of it is also contract labour, so the jobs are insecure and the wages are not as high as they were before the downturn. The mining sector has picked up a bit lately, but we’re still seeing a steady stream of clients through the doors today as a result of mining downturn.”

Through his work with clients, Terry had a pretty good handle on how local factors had different impacts on people of different ages.

“The statistics show us that people aged over fifty-five, the average length of unemployment is 68 weeks. Youth unemployment is still a problem, but the time spent before getting a job is almost double for people over the age of fifty-five than other age groups. The statistics show us that roughly a third of people who finish work over fifty-five never return to the workforce. Sometimes that might be by choice if they retire voluntarily, or it could be for health reasons, or the industry they’ve worked in has changed.

When people have been unemployed and start digging into their savings and retirement nest eggs, and using their superannuation prior to retirement, it makes a big difference once they hit retirement age and are no longer working at all.”

Central Queensland Financial Service sees a lot of people in older age groups.

“There can be financial issues that arise when one partner passes away, especially if one is a carer. The carer will receive Bereavement Allowance, but once that finishes they go onto Newstart which is about half of their previous income. Of course, rent doesn’t go down by half, electricity doesn’t decrease by half. They may have been able to afford their situation previously, but now they can’t. This is a problem area.

“One of the reasons that people present to us is because of health costs. There is some support through Patient Transit Authority for people from Central Queensland to get down to Brisbane, but it doesn’t cover all of their out of pocket expenses. We’ve had people present who have $8-10,000 credit card debts following trips back-and-forth to Brisbane, and the only way that people can maintain that at the time is by using their pre-existing credit cards that maybe didn’t have a limit. Of course, they can’t maintain that over time and end up with debt issues.”

Rockhampton has a large hospital, but not all health services are provided locally. For example, people up here need to go down to Brisbane to access neurology services.

“If it’s a lengthy stay that people need in Brisbane, they ended up maintaining two households. The house in Rockhampton is accruing costs, and it’s costing them to be in Brisbane as well. This is how people are getting in trouble due to the cost of accessing health services.

“Another reason that leads people to our service is often when people’s employment finishes unexpectedly. They might have had debt that they could manage easily when they had work, but all of a sudden they are made redundant or the job stops and that becomes an issue to them. They can no longer service the debt and the debt starts to accrue with interest. When people hit crisis point they come and talk to us. Obviously, it would be better if they came to us beforehand.

“People in this region are stoic and self-sufficient, and try to deal with their own problems as much as possible. Especially the older people in our communities. But when they start getting default letters that look threatening, they come and talk to us.

“Free financial counselling is available to people who need it through the Central Queensland Financial Counselling Service. If somebody presents to us with debt, we don’t tell them what to do but we let them know of all of the options available to them. If someone is heading into their twilight years and are never going to be able to pay their debts, we can help them negotiate for waivers or extended payment plans that are more affordable.

The worst case is of course bankruptcy, which is available to people of any age, but generally there are a range of options we can help people with before they get to that point.   

Central Queensland Financial Counselling is a free service based in Rockhampton, where trained financial counsellors offer support, information, advocacy and negotiation on behalf of consumers of credit. You can find out more information by calling 07 4928 1844 or checking out their website www.cqfcs.com.

The Fix Pension Poverty campaign is a partnership between The Benevolent Society and National Seniors, working to address the poverty being experienced by too many people on the Age Pension. We are calling on the Australian Government to:

You can sign up to follow the activities of the Fix Pension Poverty campaign by following this link.