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Welfare payments: busting the myths

The federal government’s “economic inclusion committee” is unequivocal: the single biggest thing the government could do to make a difference to Australia’s most vulnerable would be to increase the JobSeeker payment. Substantially. The Labor government, while making sympathetic noises about the plight of Australians living in poverty, immediately rules it out. What is going on?

Fewer Australians are out of work but that does not mean there are jobs for everyone.

Fewer Australians are out of work but that does not mean there are jobs for everyone.Credit: The Age

The economic inclusion committee found that the current level of the JobSeeker payment and related payments such as Youth Allowance are “seriously inadequate”. The maximum rate of Jobseeker – $347 a week for a single person, or $440 a week with full rent assistance and supplements – does not allow people to meet minimum basic needs. People on these payments face the highest levels of financial stress in Australia. They are forced to choose between paying for their medicine, or energy bills, or food. They struggle to find affordable rental properties.

For 20 years, Australia’s unemployment benefits have been slipping further and further behind community living standards. Today, Australia’s unemployment benefits are among the lowest (and on some measures the lowest) in the OECD.

Yet despite the acute need, many Australians are still unmoved by the case for an increase. The Resolve Strategic Monitor polling published two days ago in this masthead showed only 43 per cent of Australians support or strongly support an increase in the JobSeeker payment. Just under a third oppose any increase.

Credit: Dionne Gain

Australians generally care about those in need. So why the public antipathy to providing a leg up for the most vulnerable?

I think the answer lies in the national myths we tell ourselves about welfare recipients. These myths help us justify the status quo.

The first and most pervasive is the myth of the GenZ slacker. If your mental model of a welfare recipient is a work-shy twenty-something playing video games in their parents’ basement, you may be in the hold of this myth. The truth is that the median age of someone receiving JobSeeker or non-student Youth Allowance is 45. And more than half of the recipient over the age of 45 are women.

Changes in eligibility for the Disability Support Pension, single parenting payment, and the Age Pension made over the past two decades have pushed a much broader group of Australians onto JobSeeker. Many require support for a long time – more than half have been on JobSeeker for more than a year.

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