Australia

'Difficult to survive': Mental toll of being on Newstart examined amid push to increase payments

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Those with mental health conditions on Newstart are suffering because of the payment’s ‘inadequacy’ and cost of living pressures, a parliamentary inquiry has heard.

People suffering mental health concerns on Newstart are at risk of having their conditions worsen by the restrictive nature of the payments, mental health advocates have warned.

Mental Health Australia has fronted a parliamentary inquiry examining the adequacy of the income support payment for the unemployed, delivering a stern warning over the impact of the $40-a-day dole.

The Morrison government has so far rejected calls to increase the income safety net from $277 per week, instead of concentrating its efforts on pushing people into employment.  

Mental Health Australia's Harry Lovelock fronted the inquiry.
Mental Health Australia's Harry Lovelock fronted the inquiry.
Australian Senate

Harry Lovelock, Mental Health Australia Director, said the income allowance is ‘inadequate’ and taking an unfair toll on those suffering mental illnesses.

“We know Australians on Newstart are more likely to be living with mental health conditions than other Australians,” he said.

"At best the Newstart payment is fundamentally inadequate to sustain reasonable and necessary cost of living for people with mental illness.”

“At worst, the payment’s inadequacy causes deterioration of mental illness through restricting access to nutrition [and] safe and stable housing.”

There has been pressure for a $75-a-week raise to the Newstart allowance, which has only slightly increased in real terms for a quarter of a century.

But the Morrison government has resisted the push, long stating that the ‘best form of welfare is a job’ and getting people into the workforce is their focus.

Social Services Minister Anne Ruston has said the government is ‘totally committed’ to helping anyone on Newstart find a job.

Social Services Minister Anne Ruston.
Social Services Minister Anne Ruston.
AAP

‘Difficult to survive’

Mental Health Australia is among those lobbying for a rise to the income support measure.

Mr Lovelock told the inquiry the number of people on Newstart with mental health problems had increased from 30 per cent in the early 2000s to “around 50 per cent” of those on the payment.

“If you're caught up in a system that is continually making it difficult to survive on a day to day basis, it's very hard to look to a future,” he said.

“The pressures for Australians of surviving on a budget far below the recognised poverty rate exacerbates mental health problems, and is counteractive to recovery and independence."

The parliamentary committee heard the average length of time people received the payment was about three years or 159 weeks.

Ms Ruston has said the payment would not be ‘easy to live’ on but was designed as a ‘safety net payment’ not a ‘replacement for a wage.’

'No longer a temporary allowance'

Left-leaning think tank The Australia Institute noted in its submission to the inquiry an increase of around $200 a week could be appropriate.

Its researcher David Richardson arguing the Newstart payment should no longer be considered a ‘temporary’ income support measure.

“The average duration on Newstart is now 159 weeks, now they’re not all going to leave tomorrow,” he told the inquiry.

“When you look at the population of Newstart recipients – on average you would expect them to be halfway through their journey.”

“That is telling us that the average journey on Newstart is going to be around six years.”

The Australia Institute's David Richardson before the Parliamentary inquiry.
The Australia Institute's David Richardson before the Parliamentary inquiry.
AAP

He raised concerns when matched against a benchmark poverty line the value of the Newstart payment had shown a trending decrease over time.

“In the early 90s [an employed] family of four, was over 10 per cent above the Henderson poverty line, since then it has been indexed only and now it sits at 20 per cent below the poverty line,” he said.

'Barriers and challenges'

The inquiry also heard that the government hadn’t asked for advice on increasing the Newstart payments from Departments overseeing the nation's welfare, social security and employment sectors.

Senior government bureaucrats who fronted inquiry were asked whether they had been told to provide such advice and replied that they hadn’t.

Heads of the social services, human services and employment departments were questioned over whether the Newstart payment should be considered a ‘temporary’ assistance measure given its lengthy average duration.

“I would say that if someone is on Newstart for three years it is quite a long period of time,” Nathan Williamson, Deputy Secretary, Department of Social Services told the inquiry.

“Understandably there are probably some complex barriers involved with those individuals.”

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert.
AAP

Another line of questioning was over if poverty was a factor considered in the advice given to the government.

”We are aware of the barriers and challenges that exist and we take that into consideration when we provide ... advice to government,” Mr Williamson said.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert pointed to concerns for people with mental health struggles accessing welfare support services.

She said they were unlikely to disclose such conditions over the phone, where the inquiry heard contact with the system commonly takes place.

“It is a challenge, Senator, it is a challenge for staff members identifying if there is an underlying vulnerability that hasn’t been identified,” Brendan Moon of Services Australia told the inquiry.

The hearing is set to continue in Sydney tomorrow.

With additional reporting from AAP

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