COVID-19 and income support for people living with disability

adminSocial security rights review

Giancarlo de Vera, People with Disability Australia

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a great deal of changes to everyone in Australia, and particularly to people with disability. Australians with disability represent some of the most excluded of all Australians in relation to the impacts of coronavirus. At the same time, many people with disability are particularly at risk from COVID-19, because of barriers that exist to our inclusion, and our need for ongoing support.

The pandemic has highlighted and deepened the gaps in social security supports for people with disability. With 91% of people with disability surveyed by PWDA reporting increased expenses for groceries, healthcare, utilities and hygiene equipment during COVID-19, the need for robust income support has never been higher. However, exclusion from support payments for those on DSP and short-lived income supplements for those on Newstart meant that the social security system was often unable able to meet the needs of people with disability.

It is well recognised that 50% of people with disability already live in poverty so additional costs at this time are tipping people with disability over the edge. People with disability are incurring further costs that they ordinarily would not incur, to ensure they continue to receive essential supports and services, and have access to essential items such as medication, food and PPE. The higher costs have resulted in people with disability experiencing financial stress. The financial stress increases the likelihood people with disability will turn to lines of credit, and servicing the debt may be difficult further down the track.

The introduction of a temporary Coronavirus Supplement of $550 a fortnight for those on the JobSeeker payment was a critical lifeline for unemployed and underemployed Australians. However, this Supplement did not extend to those on the Disability Support pension despite the significant impacts of the pandemic on DSP recipients who have the capacity to work. Our survey found that 66% of people had seen changes to their income during the pandemic. People also reported losing their jobs and working fewer hours. The inequality in support was felt by many recipients:

It is unfair and discrimination to exclude DSP out of such a big stimulus package, considering these people have higher living expenses already, they say our situation hasn’t changed, but if that’s the case, why am I heading out for a fourth time this week to get some simple grocery items, or I’m forced to pay 100% more just to get simple medical supplies as everyone has nothing.

The lower rate of DSP created confusion for recipients as many wondered whether they should switch to the JobSeeker payment. This placed people at risk of having their DSP cancelled and being forced to apply for it again after the Coronavirus Supplement was phased out. Although there is no data about how many recipients did so, community legal centres and advocacy organisations fielded a wave of enquiries about switching. The policy gap created by this discrepancy left people vulnerable to losing their DSP and having to face an arduous application process once again.

Meanwhile, those on JobSeeker Payment only enjoyed increased support for a limited time, with the rate of Coronavirus Supplement decreasing to $150 a fortnight in January 2021. Over 40% of people in receipt of the JobSeeker payment are also people with disability and/or chronic illness. Recipients surveyed by PWDA expressed anxiety about this cut before it was implemented:

I pray that the rate of Newstart stays the same as it is now, as it is deplorable to try and survive on $530 a fortnight. And trying to find a job at my age and being deaf is absolutely horrendous, because of the discrimination I have endured, but still I try, it is not a good life to be living, no fault of my own.

The reduction in the Coronavirus Supplement is particularly harmful during a time of continued COVID-19 risk and slow labour market recovery, especially in jobs which are suited to the needs of people with disability. The risk of COVID-19 transmission has narrowed work options for immunocompromised people – despite this, those on JobSeeker Payment are now required to search for 8 jobs a month and risk payment cancellation if they don’t accept a job deemed suitable by their provider.

The initial suspension of mutual obligations in March provided a short reprieve from mutual obligations. However, with their reintroduction in September across most states and territories recipients have reported being forced to attend unsafe face-to-face appointments and apply for jobs with a high risk of infection under threat of payment sanctions. The punitive mutual obligations regime continues to create additional anxiety at a time when many are struggling to cope with the impacts of isolation and fear.

COVID-19 has highlighted the way the social security system can leave people with disability to fall through the cracks. Inadequate recognition of the additional supports needed during a life-threatening pandemic has meant many people with disability have struggled to survive. The unequal burden placed on our community is reflected in this statement by a PWDA survey participant:

We fight for diagnosis, we fight for assistance, we fight for ourselves, we fight for our families and we constantly have to fight for our lives. Please don’t make us keep fighting for equal rights especially during a pandemic.