Statistics, we know, can tell a range of different stories.
One of the most widely touted statistics in our national landscape is the unemployment rate, which, at 4 per cent, is ‘historically low’.
The stories this statistic is used to tell are overwhelmingly upbeat.
But if you don’t feel a strong sense of identification with these stories – if you don’t feel as though the effects of the pandemic are behind us, as though our communities are stronger and the pressures of daily life are easing – you’re not alone.
A new report commissioned by Catholic Social Services Victoria and St Mary’s House of Welcome finds that headline statistics about unemployment figures create a “false optimism” that doesn’t correspond to the reality of many Victorians’ lives.
That’s because when you dig down beneath the headlines, the reality of our post-COVID recovery looks a lot spottier and more uneven.
In a pandemic that produced not just a crisis of public health but one of job loss and insecurity, women and young people fared worse than other cohorts, and Victorians fared worse than people in other states.
And these inequities have continued into the ‘recovery’.
Thousands of Victorians – particularly women – have withdrawn from the labour market, artificially driving down unemployment numbers.
The picture is even worse for temporary migrants, who were excluded from social protections such as JobKeeper and JobSeeker, plunging many into economic crisis and deepening pre-existing inequalities. According to official figures (which broadly underestimate), almost a quarter of migrants were unemployed in late 2021.
The pandemic has left a “social and economic scarring effect” on many who were already struggling.
And the community sector, which is so often left to cover the shortfall between government support and people’s needs – some might even say to hold the fabric of society together – also bears these scars.
Many organisations and the people who staff them were hit hard by the pandemic, with the costs of COVID adaptations, a loss of fundraising income, and a loss of volunteers (especially older people) due to lockdowns and social distancing.
The effects of the pandemic continue to be felt by community organisations. Volunteer numbers have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, especially among older volunteers, those with disabilities, or those with existing medical conditions. This puts huge pressure on the active volunteers remaining.
And for many Victorians, particularly those locked out of protections like income support, the economic impacts of the pandemic are far from over. As of late 2021, the number of people with no income seeking emergency relief was more than double pre-pandemic levels.
They point to a need for:
- a significant and meaningful rise in economic protections like JobSeeker;
- more investment in and expansion of public and social housing;
- ongoing and increased funding for social service providers, including organisations providing emergency relief and accommodation.
As the new report puts it:
Government—both Federal and State—must recognise that millions have been permanently affected by the pandemic, that labour markets have not fully recovered despite low headline unemployment figures, and that thousands of community members experiencing the most vulnerability are being left behind as Victoria and Australia emerge from the pandemic.Scarring effects of the pandemic economy: COVID-19’s ongoing impact on jobs, insecurity and social services in Victoria
Statistics matter because they direct our attention to some stories and not others.
The tangible real-world effects of choosing which stories we, as a society, pay attention to are never clearer than during budget season.
Even as the health-related restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic drop away, the effects of the pandemic are not over, especially as they manifest for many Victorians: in insecurity and economic hardship.
We need to look beyond the false optimism of headline statistics to truly help people recover.