“While none of Australia’s welfare payments are generous, it is alarming that Newstart, at $267 per week (roughly $13,800 per year), is over $160 per week (roughly $8,000 per year) below the poverty-line. It has not been raised in real terms since 1994,” the letter said.
“Making matters worse, there are not enough jobs – 11 job-seekers for every job, according to ABS – meaning unemployment is no longer a short burst of pain but a long period of deprivation.
“With growing numbers of sole parents and people with a disability now on Newstart (27 percent of recipients have a diagnosed disability), thanks to changes to other payments, it is even more important that those living on Newstart receive a significant, long overdue raise, of at least $100 per week.”
The letter has been endorsed by more than 25 state and national organisations as well as by almost 90 individuals including prominent academics and advocates such as Professor Eva Cox and Dr. John Falzon from St. Vincent de Paul.
It includes a list of demands for the federal government:
- That Newstart Allowance (and Youth Allowance) be raised to the poverty-line, with an immediate increase of at least $100 per week.
- A cancellation of the government reviews of 90,000 DSP recipients over the 2016 to 2019 period.
- A relaxing of eligibility requirements, so that there is a closer link between access to DSP, and being unable long-term to work in the labour market, due to having a disability.
- Withdraw any measures from the 2017-2018 federal budget around restricting access to DSP for those whose health issues are solely caused by substance abuse.
- A Senate inquiry into how Centrelink treat medical certificates, and the experiences of recipients with chronic, episodic, and long-term health issues, when dealing with Centrelink and job agencies.
Anti-Poverty Network SA coordinator Pas Forgione told Pro Bono News the central theme of the letter was that the welfare system, instead of acting as a safety-net, was harming those that need it.
“We’re talking about people not being able to afford the right kinds food. We get told by our members, that they see fresh fruit as a luxury and I think when we’ve gotten to that point, we have to start talking about the rate of Newstart being a health issue,” Forgione said.
“These harms are multiple. It is Newstart recipients skipping meals, fresh fruit and vegetables,
to make ends meet. Being unable to afford dental care and medication. Being isolated, unable to participate in community life and maintain social networks. The constant financial anxiety that comes from being on an extremely low income.”
Forgione said being on a very low income could be very isolating.
“You have to ration how often you can leave the house because you simply don’t have enough money leftover once you’ve paid for bills, food and rent, and so these sorts of things that we take for granted, that we see as part of living a quality life,” he said.
“Being able to have relationships with your family and friends and being able to participate in community and social life, these sorts of things which are an important part of quality mental health are actually really difficult for people on welfare payments.”
He said the other major focus of the open letter referred to issues around the disability pension.
“We think this is something that has flown under the radar,” he said.
“It is something we’ve experienced from a lot of our members who have got serious health issues… [but] because of changes to eligibility criteria they aren’t able to get on to the pension.
“The health issues are often chronic or episodic, so when they are well they are very well, when they are unwell, they are barely able to leave the house and they are stuck on Newstart.”
According to the letter the requirement that a condition must be “fully diagnosed, treated and stabilised” in order for an applicant to qualify for DSP does not appreciate the reality experienced by those with fluctuating medical illnesses.
Forgione said only one in six applications for disability pension were successful, and the situation was being exacerbated by the nature of the labour market.
“Because there aren’t enough jobs to go around, these people are essentially going to be stuck on Newstart. Employers are not going to hire people who are only sometimes available because of their health issues, over someone who has no health issues and can come in for work at any time,” he said.
“The fact is one quarter of people on Newstart have a diagnosed disability and I think that that is a reflection of the fact that access to the disability pension has become increasingly difficult.”
The letter also draws attention to a growing number of welfare recipients that exist in a “no man’s land” where individuals with serious health issues are deemed ineligible for DSP, but whose health problems restrict their ability to meet their Newstart obligations.
“What we found is the Centrelink process around applying for medical exemptions from your obligations, is incredibly complicated and stressful and leads to all sorts of counterintuitive results,” Forgione said.
“I think the wider public would actually be quite shocked if they knew there were people who on the face of it have serious health issues, where it seems to be pretty straightforward to us that they ought to have a break from their obligations, so they can focus on looking after themselves. But Centrelinks rules are so convoluted and so rigid that people… aren’t able to get their exemptions and are required to go into their appointment, and these are the people who are more likely to have their payments cut.
“We know that the system doesn’t work the way its meant to work on paper. We know that often people who have a perfectly reasonable excuse for missing their appointment still have their payments cut. All sorts of things happen, you call up your job agency because you’re unwell but the receptionist doesn’t pass the message on to your caseworker, or you don’t have the phone credit to be able to call so you send an email instead but no one checks the email. So there is this pattern emerging that for people with health issues the welfare system is becoming an incredible frustrating, and unpleasant experience.”
He said the announcement in this year’s federal budget that the government wants to deny the disability pension for people whose health issues were caused by substance abuse was also “an incredibly dangerous move”.
“Our healthcare system doesn’t operate like that, when someone comes into a hospital seeking emergency treatment we don’t distinguish between those patients whose health issues were caused by themselves, and those patients whose health issues were caused by things outside their control. We treat everyone, because it is a matter of basic principal,” he said.
Forgione said they were not “expecting miracles” but there was a need for “significant policy changes”.
“We think there is a real need for a major raise to Newstart allowance, at least a $100 per week increase,” he said.
“We want to see an end to attacks on disability pensioners. We want governments to stop propagating the myth that it is easy to get onto the disability pension because it is not.
“We want to see some serious investigation of some of the issues we have brought up in the open letter for example there is a serious need for a senate enquiry into how Centrelink treats medical certificates.
“The fact is there is a tremendous confusion, not only for welfare recipients themselves but for doctors who find that the medical certificates they write for their patients are often being rejected, and it is leading to some pretty counter intuitive and I think outright unreasonable outcomes.”