'Calm before the storm': Calls to debt helpline services expected to surge

One of Australia's largest financial counselling services is warning the worst is yet to come for the number of people facing financial hardship.

The National Debt Helpline said it was expecting a surge in calls to the service in coming months due to the rate of JobKeeker being reduced and mortgage deferral schemes coming to an end.

While many of the assistance measures were brought in at the beginning of the pandemic in March to ease financial pressure, the helpline said it expected the rolling back of support measures would lead to more people facing economic challenges.

"We see the current period as the calm before the storm," a spokeswoman for the helpline said.

"Once the assistance measures start winding back and the bank deferrals dry up, we expect to get very busy.

"Those people who have been coping due to these measures will soon face some very uncertain economic times."

The National Debt Helpline is anticipating a surge in calls for financial hardship due to an upcoming decrease in JobSeeker. Picture: Jamila Toderas

The National Debt Helpline is anticipating a surge in calls for financial hardship due to an upcoming decrease in JobSeeker. Picture: Jamila Toderas

In the ACT, 3077 calls for assistance were made to the helpline in the 2019-20 financial year, a marginal increase from 3020 during 2018-19.

On a national level, the number of calls fell from 179,000 calls in 2018-19 to 159,000 in the most recent financial year.

However, the spokeswoman for the helpline said lower numbers nationally in 2020 was due to a significant spike in calls from WA in 2019, which had since returned to normal levels.

The helpline said the number of calls made relating to coronavirus fell as the pandemic went on.

When COVID-19 restrictions were first implemented in March, 50 per cent of calls to the helpline were relating to coronavirus. This has now fallen to 15 per cent.

"When the federal government introduced assistance measures in March and the financial institutions introduced grace periods, our weekly call numbers dropped," the helpline spokeswoman said.

"This shows us that many of the people we were normally seeing now have enough money to live on due to the increase in Newstart, now JobSeeker.

"Many of our clients were people struggling with debt and bills while trying to live off Newstart. It simply wasn't enough."

The JobKeeper payment will reduce from $1500 a fortnight to $1200 on September 28.

That rate will reduce further to $1000 a fortnight from January 4 in 2021.

ACT Council of Social Service chief executive Emma Campbell said more Canberrans were likely to fall below the poverty line as JobSeeker changes are introduced. The JobSeeker payment was reduced by $300 last week.

"We expect that those impacts are going to be significant in the months and years ahead," Dr Campbell said.

"The issue is a lot of measures put in place are deferrals, and it doesn't mean the debts that are amassed just disappear.

"We need to ensure that measures are in place to support people who have lost their jobs or have experienced a significant decrease in their income."

This story 'Calm before the storm': Surge in calls to debt helpline expected first appeared on The Canberra Times.