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COVID-19 social security measures enabled job-seeking, but payment cuts inhibit this once more, finds survey

  • A new report detailing the results of a November 2020 survey finds that the Coronavirus Supplement (the Supplement) and suspension of mutual obligations improved respondents’ engagement in the labour market as well as their physical and mental health.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic was a period of brief reprieve for survey respondents receiving the Supplement and suspension of mutual obligations due to the easing of financial stress, scrutiny and uncertainty.
  • Despite this, the reduction in the Supplement to $250 per fortnight (paid between 25 September-31 December 2020) pushed recipients back below the poverty line, eroding the health and productivity gains achieved with the $550 Supplement.

Among those surveyed, 99 percent of people who received the Supplement said the payment made their life easier, according to new data released by Victoria’s peak body for children, young people and their families the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare (the Centre), Australian National University, Swinburne University of Technology and Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand.

A survey of 173 Australians, of whom 146 received a social security payment between March and November 2020, found that people receiving the Supplement reported using the extra income for basic needs and survival (such as food, medicine, and housing), as well as items and activities that would help their longer-term economic future.

One respondent, (female, 35-44 years, JobSeeker Payment), a single parent, said:

“I’ve felt more dignity whilst receiving the extra Supplement as I’ve been able to buy enough food and pay my bills on time. It has made me feel like a good parent being able to actually care for my children and buy them clothes and shoes and send them to outings with their friends or school when normally they miss out because they know we don’t have the money.”

Respondents who had their mutual obligations suspended also indicated that this policy change freed up their time and reduced their anxiety and stress. One respondent (female, 45-54 years, JobSeeker Payment) said:

“Instead of doing busywork and ticking off boxes [related to mutual obligations], I could really focus on study and what I needed to do to get to where I wanted to go. And I was able to make progress for the first time in a couple of years towards that goal.”

Responses to the survey suggest that receiving the Coronavirus Supplement led to significant differences in time use when compared to people who did not receive the Supplement, showing increased time spent on employment-related activities such as looking for paid work, and making improvements to physical and mental health.

Despite the positive impact of the Supplement on so many, the payment was reduced to $250 per fortnight in September (and then to $150 in January after the survey had concluded). Unsurprisingly, many respondents said this pushed them back below the poverty line.

Respondents reported having to forego basic needs once again, with many also experiencing increased stress and reduced psychological wellbeing. Respondents also reported the reduction limited their ability to undertake labour market activities that they were able to do while receiving the full $550 Supplement.

One respondent (male, 35-44 years, JobSeeker Payment) said:

“It increased anxiety, making me more fearful of the future. It reduced my options for my future career – because I have to prioritise survival. It made me feel more alienated because my income separated me from others.”

Another respondent (female, 45-54 years, JobSeeker Payment) said:

“My plans for creating for myself self-sufficiency through a home business have pretty much evaporated and now I am back in the netherworld of constant fear and worry about poverty. It’s like life has stopped again.”

Centre CEO Deb Tsorbaris said the improved quality of life experienced by people receiving social security during the pandemic has been ripped away.

“For the first time, many Australians were able to turn their attention away from day-to-day survival and towards envisioning and realising a more sustainable future for themselves and their children.

“Many were also able to spend more time looking for paid work, which is contrary to the government’s narrative that more generous social security payments discourage looking for employment. Parents and carers were better able to care for their children and purchase quality food and supplies. This security has been taken away and families are once again being punished,” Ms Tsorbaris said.

Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand CEO Stella Avramopoulos said that during the pandemic, demand from long-term clients for financial counselling services did not increase despite more widespread financial insecurity in the broader community.

“They did not have crushing debt. They did not need help to meet costs associated with study or meeting employment obligations. They were not struggling to put food on the table. Why did this happen? It was because the Coronavirus Supplement provided them with enough money to make ends meet,” Ms Avramopoulos said.

Swinburne University of Technology’s Professor Kay Cook, who is a Research Director in the University’s School of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities and a member of the research team, said the capacity of many Australians has once again been reduced to focusing only on survival.

“Australia’s social security policy is functioning contrary to the outcomes government are trying to achieve. It creates barriers to work, compromises physical and mental health, and provides inadequate financial resources for basic living needs.

“Social security should be seen as an investment in our nation. If payments adequately covered living needs, they would also support the achievement of basic human rights, improve long-term economic security, build capabilities, and address systemic drivers of disadvantage,” Professor Cook said.

In light of the survey findings, the Centre, Australian National University, Swinburne University of Technology and Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand recommend the Australian Government:

  • Deliver a permanent, adequate increase to social security payments sufficient to lift the incomes above the poverty line. The $50 per fortnight increase recently legislated by the government is not sufficient.
  • Abolish mutual obligations and replace them with a system that provides voluntary employment support, training, career advice and guidance.
  • Reform the social security system so that it recognises that paid employment is only one form of productivity and work.
  • Strengthen data collection to facilitate future research on time use and social security by including a question about social security recipients in the Australian Bureau of Statistics Time Use Survey.

Read the full report or the report snapshot.

About the research and the authors

This research was conducted by members of the Treating Families Fairly alliance. Treating Families Fairly is an alliance of child and family service organisations, peak bodies and academics advocating for policies that uphold the rights of children and families, and speaking out against policies that cause harm, with a particular focus on social security and welfare conditionality.

The members of the research team and authors of the Social security and time use during COVID-19 report are Dr Elise Klein (Australian National University), Professor Kay Cook (Swinburne University of Technology), Susan Maury (Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand) and Kelly Bowey (Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare).

The Treating Families Fairly alliance is convened by the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare (the Centre). The Centre is the peak body for child and family services in Victoria and represents more than 100 community service organisations, students and individuals.

Media contact

Christie Long, 0403 053 584 or 

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