Australia is considered one of the better countries in the world in which to live. While this may be true for a number of reasons, e.g. quality of life, freedom of speech, access to education and so on, we still have some areas in need of improvement. One of these areas is the social security system, otherwise known as welfare or Centrelink payments.

Before I go any further, I realize this is not exactly a scientific topic and more an economic/political one, but the evidence will be provided much the same, and I feel it is a topic that needs to be addressed.

Once upon a time in the not-too-distant history (and even still in the present day), women were (and are) expected to fulfill certain gender stereotypes, to be the dutiful wife and do the cooking, cleaning and raise the kids while the husband was expected to fulfill his stereotypes and so he went off to work to earn the only source of income for the family, then he’d come home to a nice cooked dinner and a loving family. This was all well and good at the time, but since then, society (in the developed world at least) has realized that women are able and willing to work as well. That they want to be seen as equals to their male companions, even wanting careers that are typically male dominated e.g. mechanics and carpentry, despite getting paid, on average $283 less a week for doing the same job as their male coworkers. Men were also wanting careers in typically female dominated industries e.g. nursing and ballet. This became the norm, so much so, that legislation was updated to include the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984, making it illegal to discriminate against a person based on their sexuality, gender, marital status, pregnancy status or family responsibilities.
Another interesting point to make here is that in 2013, Australia was rated 24th out of 136 in the Global Gender Gap report, but in 2006 they were ranked much better at 15th.

But do these laws apply to the government themselves? It would seem not. In fact, at least one article suggests the system is set up to fail you when you need it. Let’s take a look at some examples (note: the scenarios below are very much real and actually happened, but real names and specific ID details have been omitted for obvious privacy reasons):

  1. Jack is 65 years of age. He is therefore able to retire. During his working life, he had a great job and was able to put quite a lot of his money into a savings account instead of spending it on material things like his friends did. Jack had planned for the future effectively. He also had quite a decent superannuation fund.
    Jack’s wife Jill is also 65 and wishes to retire due to her aching back. She had an average-income career most of her working life. As a result, she does not have a huge savings account and only has enough in her superannuation to last about a year or two in her retirement. She doesn’t have a lot of other assets either. So Jill applies for the age pension. However, because her husband has a lot of money in savings and super, Jill is unable to claim the age pension. This effectively means that the government expects Jack to pay for all of his own expenses as well as all of Jill’s expenses. However, Jack and Jill have only been married 10 years. This means that for the first 30 or so years of his working life, Jack’s income that he earned for himself, before he even met Jill, is now being used to support Jill. This is encouraging the idea that your partner is your bank. This is not OK.
  2. James is 24 years of age. For a few years now he has been sharing a house with a female friend, Amy, he’s known for years because it worked out cheaper and more convenient for the both of them this way. They split the bills evenly: rent, food, electricity, internet; but pay their own mobile phone bills and vehicle registrations etc themselves. Neither of them have any large assets. James works at a local retail establishment and earns around $1200 a week (more over the Christmas period). He also attends university.
    Amy is a 23 year old university student and has been on the single rate of Youth allowance during her studies the past few years. She has a history of anxiety and depression, and decided it would be in her best interest to not get a job while studying, as it would be far too stressful and bad for her health. This also means she can focus on her studies better which will benefit her in the future when she graduates.
    Recently, just 5 weeks before Christmas, James and Amy decided they would move past the friend stage and date each other. So Amy did the right thing and told Centrelink about her change in relationship status. She was told she would have to report her partner’s income every fortnight and the amount he earns would determine what she gets paid. Upon the first reporting date, 2 weeks after they had started dating, Amy reported her partner’s income of $1600 for that fortnight. Amy then saw that her next Youth allowance payment would be $0. Thta’s ZERO dollars.
    James was not very impressed by this system. A mere 2 weeks after dating and he is already expected to pay all of Amy’s bills as well as his own? He was angry. He is NOT her bank. Well, there goes his plans to pay off a new car or go on that holiday he always wanted. And now he can’t help his family if they need to borrow money. He should NOT have to pay Amy’s bills….ever. Not even if they were married. Quite frankly, he was angry that the government system functions in this way. Amy was angry and upset too. She was not the sort of person who was comfortable with other people paying for her bills and needs. She never borrows money from anyone. The Centrelink system is literally encouraging people to financially rely on each other. This is definitely NOT OK, and the government need to seriously reconsider the messages they want young people to learn from this system. One of the leading causes of divorce in the US is financial insecurity (see p.42). The Huffington Post also indicates financial differences as one of the top 10 causes of divorce. It’s no secret that differences regarding money can cause stress, which results in arguments and eventually divorce. Now the only thing that changed in James and Amy’s circumstances is that they now share a room in their house instead of 2 separate rooms. That’s literally it. Everything else is still the same: they still evenly split the food bill, the electricity, the internet and other costs associated with the house e.g. carpet cleaning etc.  Yet Centrelink believes this criteria alone is the difference between earning around $500/fn and earning $0/fn. Bit of a joke really. She would never ask James to pay for anything for her. Even when he took her to dinner, she paid half of the bill because she believes in equality. Her partner is NOT her bank. Yet here she is being punished for her righteous beliefs?

Of course Amy could get a job, however, 5 weeks from Christmas? Not very likely. In fact, even after the New year, it’s still not very likely for Amy to get a job. This is because (A) she has to be paid adult wages and we all know how many establishments prefer teenagers they can pay less, despite it being illegal to discriminate against age (& other things like certain disabilities), almost all businesses do in some way or another and no one fights them on it so they get away with it (retail/hospitality would really be her only option as she needs to be able to attend university as well, so full-time roles would not be suitable), and (B) Businesses typically hire Christmas casual staff at the end of October/start of November so they are trained in time for the Christmas rush. As it’s now the end of November, she has missed all the jobs. Those Christmas casuals typically stay on until mid January in the new year then they are let go, as the store has no need for that many extra staff. So where is Amy supposed to get a job to pay for her rent and bills over the next 6-8 weeks? Finally, (C) Far too many businesses these days require you to have experience or certificates. But you cannot get the experience until you get the job to get the experience*. It’s an endless loop of no logic.
This lack of income on her behalf is sure to cause arguments with James. The increased stress on both of them and the pressure on James to provide for her after only 2 weeks together, is all too much for a new relationship to handle. Arguments are bound to happen. The couple eventually break up and money is to blame, or rather, the Australian government’s system that promotes the idea that your partner is your bank, is to blame.

Now moving on to similar, related issues: 

Then of course there are those people who would say “just get a job you dole bludger” while failing to realize that a university student is so very far from a dole bludger. It’s typically the same type of people who make such rude comments too: those in well-paying, secure jobs where they haven’t had to worry about where the rent money is coming from for years now, and probably haven’t bothered to check the welfare statistics either. Yet these same people fail to realize how much the age pension costs the tax payers every year compared to students and ‘dole bludgers’ who are just a myth, and it’s only costing more thanks to the increasing age expectancies of people, thanks to more people wanting science to find ways to remove diseases that would normally control the population and live longer and longer. Also, the large wages of government workers are always forgotten about too, especially those in parliament and the VERY nice 6-figure bonuses and pensions they get after they retire. In 2014-2015, the age pension and associated aged benefits of the general public made up a whopping 40% of the total welfare payments. That’s $45.7 Billion. Meanwhile, students and those on Newstart allowance combined were only paid $7.25 billion (Source: ABC News).  Yet who is always accused of ‘wasting tax payer money’? It’s never the retired folk who consume $45 billion a year. No. It’s the ‘lazy’ or ‘entitled’ young people who consume only $7 billion a year.

Total Welfare payments in Australia 2014-2015. Source: ABC

*e.g. in my own area recently, I’ve seen jobs in coffee shops and corner stores and cafes advertised. They all required you to have experience with coffee machines/cooking or industry experience in general. These are entry level, after-school type jobs mind you. This, to me, just shows laziness on behalf of the employer. If they were to give people a chance and spend a little bit training them, the economy would be better for it. You can’t get experience until someone gives you a chance. So, anyone reading this thinking ill of my comments, remember back when you were looking for a job and you struggled for a while before someone finally gave you a chance to prove yourself? It’s tough. Especially in an economy where the population keeps growing but the number of jobs does not. Some people work 2 or 3 jobs and still can barely make ends meet.

Now, when an apprentice goes to work, they are paid for learning and society deems this ok and fair. When a students goes to classes they are not paid for learning. Society also thinks this is ok and fair. A full-time student should be studying/going to classes for a combined 40 hours a week (10 hours per subject). It is supposed to be equal to full-time work. That is why many university lecturers say that the more a person works, the more negatively it will affect their studies. Now, there is not enough time in a week to work full time and study full-time to make ends meet and get good grades, especially if you live in a capital city, this can be a struggle with expensive rent and food bills. So, in reality, why should Amy have to work? Her university studies are no different than a person studying an apprenticeship. Yet the apprentice is paid for his learning efforts and the student is not. There are many people that believe that a tertiary education is an asset and society should pay for it (through the HECS system). Because if the HECS system was not in place, very few people would be able to afford going to university. It would be limited to those who come from rich families or those who have mastered the balance between work, study and family/social committments. Of these people the second group would probably cost the nation a fair amount in health issues, brought about by the stress, anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses brought about by living such a lifestyle. Of the first group, the rich and well-off, how many would actually desire a tertiary education?
By removing the HECS system (which people often claim costs the economy hugely, despite the age pension being proven to cost far far more), people who could have one day gone on to cure cancer or create a new piece of useful technology or revolutionise our lives, would not be able to do so. This would even limit the next generation of doctors, lawyers, accountants, scientists, nurses, psychologists and so on.

You can, of course, appeal your decisions, however, the legalities and loopholes are often very complex and time-wasting. Under special circumstances, as seen in section 24 of the Social Security Act, you may be considered single for payment purposes, even if you are in a relationship. However, these ‘special’ circumstances would apply to very few people. Furthermore, in James and Amy’s situation above, Amy would not be permitted the single rate of payment while part of a couple. This is because they consider Amy not working to be her own choice, and she could better her situation but is choosing not to. While this is true, it’s not that black and white. The stress of having to work enough hours to afford to live while finding the time to study in peace and still deal with her relationship with James-and resultant mental illnesses that would arise from all of this, would cost far too much each year- we all know psychologists are not cheap! In fact, over the 2013-14 period, it cost medicare $970 million on mental health subsidies. During that same period, over $8 billion was spent on mental health services. So what do the government really gain by denying a woman a means to pay her bills? It does not make an ounce of sense. James could pay her bills. But it is NOT his place to do so. He is her partner, not her parent. Centrelink need to realize this. Again, it is NOT the 1950’s any more.

I believe every single person should have/know a few basic things: every single person should know how to cook and clean and look after themselves. Every single person should also have the ability to be financially independent. No one should ever have to rely on another person for money (children/disabled and few others excepted). People in retirement should be able to earn a decent amount of superannuation through their working life to sustain them until they pass on. Too many retirees spend large amounts of their super on material things such as boats or antiques or holidays instead of carefully planning how they are going to live out their retirement years. As a result, many then apply for the age pension, and, because they spent all their super that was intended for their retirement, they now are eligible for the age pension. Furthermore, the family home is excluded from the asset means test. This means that a retired couple can live in their multi-million dollar beach front home, yet still claim a pension. This system needs to be addressed as well.
Of course there are people from all walks of life that abuse the system. But, as always, the few ruin it for the many. As always, people see the bad actions of the few and generalise it to everyone in that group, i.e. they stereotype.
Centrelink need to start treating people as individuals with bills and lives instead of treating 2 people as 1 unit under the label of a couple.

Centrelink’s own website even says:

We understand not all couples are the same.

Yet the evidence suggests otherwise. They consider your partner’s income to be your income. This is not the 1950’s any more. As said previously, men and women want equality. They do not want the stereotypical “women stay at home and clean while the men work all day” social structure (despite more men being stay-at-home dads). Centrelink’s system does not promote equality in this way. It does the exact opposite.