Newstart analysis reveals huge leap in amount of time people spend on dole

Luke Henriques-Gomes

The Coalition government has presided over a staggering blowout in the number of extreme long-term Newstart recipients, with an analysis revealing unemployed people are languishing on the welfare payment for an average of nearly a year longer than they did in 2014.

Despite the government’s claims Newstart is a “transition” payment and not a “wage replacement”, the analysis of income support data by Guardian Australia shows there is a fast-growing cohort who have been living on the historically low rate of the dole since Tony Abbott was prime minister.

And as Scott Morrison bats away calls for a $75 a week increase to the dole because it fails to cover basic living costs and stops people getting into work, there is no indication the problem is likely to turn around: in all but one quarter since 2014, the average time a person spends on Newstart has increased.

“I’m not surprised. I know how many people are applying for the jobs that I am applying for,” said Nijole Naujokas, a welfare campaigner who has been on Newstart long term after being knocked back for a disability pension.

“If you want people to have the best chance of getting a job, you need to make sure they have had a full meal and have a roof over their head.”

average time on Newstart

Guardian Australia collated the Newstart figures, which have been published in separate quarterly reports by the Department of Social Services since September 2014. The latest data, for March 2019, was released this month.

The analysis shows a person living on Newstart, now about $280 a week for a single person, could expect to spend 40% longer on the dole than in September 2014. At March 2019, the average Newstart recipient had claimed the payment for more than three years (155 weeks), up from two years and two months (113 weeks) in 2014.

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The casualties of that trend are the extra 75,000 people who have either received Newstart for between five and 10 years or for longer than a decade. While overall numbers of Newstart recipients have fallen, driven by a reduction in short-term recipients and those on the payment between one and two years, there are also 30,000 extra people who have been on Newstart between two and five years.

Among them is Nigel, who was made redundant from a retail job more than two years ago. About six months of Nigel’s time on Newstart has been spent fighting lymphoma. He is now in remission, but felt his chances of getting back into the workforce were grim.

“I’m finding once people see a hole in your resume of even a few months and they ask why, and you tell them, they tend to shy off a bit,” he said. “They don’t want to take the risk of employing someone who’s been that sick and of you getting sick again.”

newstart

Naujokas, who has relied on Centrelink on and off for more than decade, said it was ridiculous to suggest Newstart was “transitional”.

“Everyone I know who has been on Newstart for a long time and it’s not because they aren’t trying,” she said. “The jobs just aren’t there.”

The growing cohort of long-term Newstart recipients was likely a result of policy changes that denied higher-paying pensions to disabled people and single parents, as well as the increasing number of older Australians who were now unemployed, campaigners said.

“If you have an illness or disability, or you are caring for children, you are likely to spend longer periods of time on income support because you may not be able to work, or cannot find suitable paid employment,” said Cassandra Goldie, the chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Service.

She added: “Newstart is not enough for anyone, whether you receive it for one week, one year or five.”

Labor’s social services spokeswoman, Linda Burney, accused the government of being “clearly misleading” by calling Newstart a transitional payment.

The Greens’ Rachel Siewert, who is charing an inquiry into the payment, said: “This shows that it’s not a transition payment, it shows that people are on there long term, and we know that poverty in itself is a barrier on top of all the other barriers people may be facing to work.”

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A spokesperson for the social services minister, Anne Ruston, pointed to figures showing the proportion of Australians receiving working-age income support payments had fallen to its lowest level in 30 years.

“But in accepting positive results we acknowledge that some indicators are showing there is more work to be done in some areas which the government is determined to address,” the spokesperson said.

“That is why we are so focused on investing in programs that break down barriers that some unemployed Australians face getting into the workforce, particularly those at risk of long-term welfare dependency.”

The spokesperson also said two-thirds of new recipients of Newstart were off the payment in 12 months, a figure that is almost unchanged since 2014.