Cost of Living
The compounding effects of COVID-19, sky-high inflation and successive disasters have had severe impacts on the cost of living in NSW. Interest rate rises and surging rental prices over the last 12 months have substantially reduced housing affordability, reducing the ability of low-income households to pay for other essentials.
The annual NCOSS Cost of Living in NSW survey for 2023 showed that more low-income households are under increased pressure and told the story of chronic anxiety and stress. 69% are in housing stress and a third of respondents reported they had not been able to pay their utility bills on time, a substantial increase of 38% since 2022.
More people are taking ‘last resort’ measures to get by, such as skipping meals, not undertaking essential travel and going without prescribed medication and health care. More are becoming reliant on Buy Now Pay Later, borrowing from friends and families, and draining their savings. Concerningly, the survey highlighted low levels of awareness and uptake of many cost-of-living rebates.
What’s In the 2023-2024 Budget?
Energy (From 1 July 2024)
- Low Income Household Rebate and Medical Energy Rebate will increase from $285 to $350.
- Family Energy Rebate will increase from $180 to $250 for those receiving the full rate. For those on a partial rate (who also receive the Low Income Household Rebate) the assistance will move from $20 to $30.
- Seniors Energy Rebate will increase from $200 to $250.
- The Life Support Rebate will increase for each piece of equipment by 22%.
- $60 weekly toll cap for private motorists from 1 January 2024. The program will run for 2 years and is in addition to the Toll Rebate Scheme.
- From Monday 16 October, cheaper weekend fares will be expanded to include Fridays, meaning people will receive a 30% fare discount on Metro, train, bus and light rail services.
Rebates for Kids
- Extending the Active Kids and Creative Kids Voucher Programs to 31 January 2024, and then transitioning to a combined “Active and Creative Kids NSW” voucher program that will be means tested. The cost of this measure is $159.3 million over four years to 2026-27.
- First Lap Learn to Swim Active Pre-Schooler Voucher has been reduced to $50 per child aged between 3 and 6 years not yet enrolled in school to attend swimming lessons.
What does it mean for those doing it tough?
Many households will be paying more for energy considering recent price increases and the likelihood that NSW will be experiencing high temperatures this summer. In this context, an increase to energy rebates will provide much needed and welcomed assistance for low-income households. But we know from take-up rates and feedback from frontline community organisations, that the complexity of application processes can be a barrier for vulnerable community members struggling with language, literacy, technology or other issues.
The Active Kids, Creative Kids and First Lap vouchers are some of the most accessed rebates that the NSW Government offers. These will now be means-tested and reduced in value. While this more targeted approach retains access for lower income households, the reduced value may limit the ability of these families to participate in eligible activities.
Many of Greater Sydney’s existing toll roads are found in and around areas with higher concentrations of disadvantage, particularly in Western and South-West Sydney (e.g. M4, M5 and M7). This increases the likelihood that people living on low incomes will have to utilise toll roads to access employment, social connections, and other amenities.
The toll cap will reduce budget pressures on these households and increase their ability to engage in essential travel using private vehicles. But it does not help those who are dependent on public transport to meet their mobility needs. It is positive that there will be no change to the weekly travel cap of $25 for Opal concession fares on public transport, but concession fares before this point will rise, along with other fares, by an average of 3.7%. This is less than inflation, but is still an additional cost pressure for people living below the poverty line, including those in receipt of JobSeeker or Youth Allowance.
What is needed?
Energy rebates and costs
NCOSS appreciates that the NSW Government has increased a few cost-of-living rebates, targeting vulnerable households to deliver much needed, additional relief. It is a positive start, but more needs to be done to increase awareness, address equity issues, and ensure that relief reaches those in those in greatest need.
Fixed-rate energy concessions do not deliver equity between households with different energy needs, whether this arises because of household size, housing condition or unique needs. Percentage-based energy rebates would better support equity and could be designed in a way that is budget neutral.
Consideration also needs to be given to ensuring that online and in-person application processes and eligibility requirements for cost-of-living rebates are streamlined, making them easy to navigate and straightforward for everyone to complete.
Further, there is a need to address the significant gaps in awareness of cost-of-living rebates, through targeted awareness campaigns. This should include partnering with local neighbourhood and community centres to ensure that the most vulnerable community members are able to receive advice, support and assistance in a safe and welcoming environment. Before the next budget, the Government must also look to reforms that prevent disproportionate energy costs for those doing it toughest, including improving the energy efficiency of homes (particularly for renters), and supporting electrification for low-income households.
Expanding public transport concessions to Commonwealth Health Care Card holders would help ensure that more low-income households struggling with rising transport costs can benefit from subsidised travel. This, in turn, would support them to participate in their communities and more actively engage in education, employment and other opportunities.
Similarly, extending the $2.50 per day Opal fare that is available to seniors and pensioners, to others on income support payments would ensure more affordable travel for those struggling below the poverty line.
Finally, the Government should turn its mind to addressing food security. Community organisations report significant, ongoing demand for assistance from food pantries, community kitchens and distribution centres across the state, despite additional COVID-related funding for this purpose coming to an end. They highlight that the existing system is complex and straining under rising demand, hampered by lack of clarity regarding roles and responsibilities and insufficient coordination at the local level.
Releasing the Review of Food Relief Provision commissioned by the former state government in 2021; and establishing a taskforce of NGO experts to advise on system improvements would be valuable starting points.
- Barely Hanging On: The Cost of Living Crisis in NSW
- Hungry or Homeless – Tough Choices in a Cost of Living Crisis
- St Vincent de Paul Society’s Pre-Budget Submission