The low rate of Newstart payments is fuelling a cycle of poverty, crime and mental health issues in Murray Bridge, a financial counsellor says.
The Salvation Army's Janet Emmins wants more locals to take up the campaign to get the federal government to "raise the rate" of the unemployment benefit above its current level of $40 a day.
The rate has not increased in 25 years, but the cost of living has.
Recipients were being pushed into homelessness as a result, she said - and not just young people.
"Since the beginning of this year I've had two couples in the 60-65 age bracket who have gone in and out of work over the last eight to 10 years; both have gone bankrupt and handed their houses back to the bank," she told the Murray Bridge council last week.
"That's what life's like out there."
Many recipients struggled to pay bills or afford housing, food or medication, she said; a third were regularly forced to skip meals; and a quarter lived with a disability but were unable to qualify for the more liveable disability pension.
Getting a job was the obvious way out; but there were only 180,000 for Australia's 2.8 million Newstart recipients to apply for each year, meaning the average recipient spent four years living on the payment.
"There's not enough jobs to go around, and when you're on Newstart it's not easy to relocate," she said.
Anyway, most Newstart recipients were not ready to start work right away, she said - after living below the poverty line for so long, they lacked the skills, clothing and confidence to succeed at a job interview.
"They might get a job at T&R, but only last three weeks," she said.
"They're not used to working eight-hour days.
"For those people to get into a job, it needs to be structured differently ... for anyone to succeed that's gone through not working for a long time, they really need support around them."
Raising the rate of government payments would change lives, and would boost the local economy, she said.
"As a community, we're only as strong as our most vulnerable," she said.
"How can we build a community where we recognise that group and value the richness they bring?"
Councillors Karen Eckermann and Mat O'Brien expressed strong support for Ms Emmins' stance, while Cr Tyson Matthews suggested a novel solution - every Australian who received a $1000 tax cut this year could donate that extra money to services that made a difference.
- More information: raisetherate.org.au.