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Mental health and income support

7 December 2020 at 4:44 pm
Rachel Siewert
The Productivity Commission report into mental health showed the punitive nature of the income support system is adversely impacting people's mental health. Given the issue of robodebt and the increase in people accessing the system, it’s a link worth drawing attention to, writes Senator Rachel Siewert. 

Rachel Siewert | 7 December 2020 at 4:44 pm


Mental health and income support
7 December 2020 at 4:44 pm

The Productivity Commission report into mental health showed the punitive nature of the income support system is adversely impacting people’s mental health. Given the issue of robodebt and the increase in people accessing the system, it’s a link worth drawing attention to, writes Senator Rachel Siewert.  

The government finally released the Productivity Commission report on mental health last week which outlines a comprehensive set of recommendations to improve our approach on mental health in Australia. It is a great shame that this wasn’t released earlier and that the budget did not commit resources to start implementing recommendations.

The report is a substantial body of work and covers a range of issues including income and employment support and how these matter to people with mental ill-health.

It is galling to hear the government do a big shiny presser one day on mental health and then turn around the next and accuse people on income support of refusing to look for work whilst comprehensively failing to take any meaningful responsibility for the stress robodebt caused. 

Living below the poverty line for an extended period of time impacts people’s health and it impacts people’s mental health. 

For people trapped in the cycle of poverty it is very difficult – often impossible – to access long-term treatments for mental ill-health that help people to live fulfilling lives, leaving many in our community to rely on emergency departments and crisis services when things get really bad. 

At the best of times our income support system can cause anxiety and poor mental health and this has only been exacerbated in the midst of a recession when so many people are living with such uncertainty in their lives. 

Approximately 191,000 people with a mental illness receive income support through the JobSeeker Payment or Youth Allowance. 

These are payments that have been below the poverty line and haven’t been increased for 25 years. 

A further 259,000 people receive the Disability Support Pension (DSP) because of a psychological or psychiatric disability – this is about one third of all DSP recipients, although one estimate suggests that over half of all DSP recipients have a mental illness.

People on DSP also have very high rates of poverty. 

The government has never wavered from its talking point on mutual obligations, that “the best form of welfare is a job” and that its obligation to taxpayers is to ensure that people are not rorting the system. 

Yet this obligation is far from mutual or reciprocal when it comes to this government. 

They certainly see no obligation to the thousands of people whose lives have been irrevocably changed due to robodebt. No obligation to compensate them for their trauma and suffering. 

Mutual obligations are an insidious part of our income support system, of conditionality, whereby people are punished with a payment cut or suspension, made to sign up to look for an arbitrary number of jobs, do work for the dole and do training courses for the sake of it.  

Australia has one of the harshest compliance regimes in the world and the lowest spend in the OECD on employment services. 

One by-product of the pandemic is that more people than ever have had to engage with Centrelink, Services Australia and a jobactive provider and they do not like what they are seeing or how they’ve been treated. 

It was revealed at estimates that within less than 30 days of mutual obligations being reinstated, 74,434 payments were suspended by Centrelink. 

That’s almost 75,000 penalties issued in less than 30 days. 

Amongst the people who had a payment suspended were 12,137 First Nations peoples, 6,334 single parents, 13,169 disabled people, 9,100 homeless people and 12,135 from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. 

We then had the minister in the chamber last sitting week bragging that there are now more than 250,000 people who have had a payment suspended. 

I’m at a loss to understand how suspending a homeless person’s payment in the midst of a recession will help them find work. 

A significant body of work already exists that indicates that harsh income support compliance regimes, or “welfare conditionality”, are not an incentive to finding long-term stable employment; that’s why it is so significant that the productivity commission has recognised the impact of mutual obligations for people with mental ill-health.

Having a payment suspended is an incredibly stressful thing for someone to go through when they are already living below the poverty line, not to mention in the midst of a pandemic and recession. 

Imagine being a single parent and having your payment suspended for a week, not knowing if you’re going to be able to afford the next meal. Even if it’s just for a couple of days, these penalties are incredibly stressful for people who are already doing it really tough. 

Instead of trying to assist people with the barriers they face, this government invests in programs – at considerable expense – that seek to further entrench disadvantage. 

The Community Development Program, ParentsNext and Jobactive are little more than cash cows for private companies and they make people’s lives miserable. On top of this, successive governments have developed a system that actively keeps disabled people on the lower Jobseeker payment and prevents them accessing the disability support pension.

These obligations are in no way mutual; for people on income support it is a one-way street of stress and punitive measures.

Not only does living in poverty make access to meaningful mental health treatments difficult, the system itself exacerbates mental health conditions and creates stress and anxiety for people who are already struggling to make ends meet.

Rachel Siewert  |  @SenatorSiewert

Senator Rachel Siewert is the Greens spokesperson on Family and Community Services.

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