Nearly 14,000 Australians with disability made to live on $40 a day for 18 months before receiving pension

By Luke Henriques-Gomes

Nearly 14,000 people have now been forced to do 18 months of job search and survive on $40-a-day jobseeker benefits before they were finally granted the disability pension.

Under Gillard government-era changes aimed at reducing the welfare spend and increasing workforce participation, people without a specific severe impairment who want to access the disability payment must complete up to 18 months of job search within three years.

During this period, known as a “program of support”, they receive the jobseeker payment, which is about $385 a fortnight lower than the disability support pension.

While critics say many disabled people struggle to complete the required 18 months, new data shows those who do are overwhelmingly found to be unfit for work.

The figures show 13,983 people who completed the job search requirement and then applied for the disability support pension were successful between 2012-13 and 2019-20. Only 908 people (or 6%) had their claims denied.

The Greens senator Rachel Siewert, who obtained the data, said it meant those people with disabilities – 1,412 in the past financial year – had been forced to live on the $40-a-day Newstart payment.

“The fact is that those people were made to wait for 18 months at least to then get on the DSP,” Siewert said.

“They were made to wait on, at the time, $40 a day, with a disability.”

The disability pension is about $950 a fortnight, compared with the pre-pandemic jobseeker rate of $565 a fortnight. Over 18 months, the difference is about $15,000.

“This is about keeping people off the DSP because it’s the pension and it’s a higher payment,” Siewert said.

The government argues some of the people who looked for work rather than being granted the pension will have found employment, although there is no data to quantify this.

Some 750,000 people now receive the disability support pension. Numbers have dwindled after the former Labor government significantly tightened eligibility requirements. The Coalition also made further changes, including a crackdown that was scrapped because it cost more than it saved.

There is currently an ongoing departmental review of the impairment tables – introduced in 2011 – which determine whether a person is able to access the pension.

To avoid the 18-month job search requirement, they must have one stable condition that is so severe it warrants 20 points on these tables out of a possible 30.

Those who are judged as having 20 points but across various conditions rather than one must first “demonstrate that they have tried to improve their work capacity”, according to the government.

“It is a requirement aimed at helping people get the skills they need to find and keep a job,” the social services minister, Anne Ruston, said in March.

“They are supported to build their skills through the help of employment services such as jobactive and [Disability Employment Service].”

Guardian Australia has reported extensively on one of the consequences of the policy – a massive change to the profile of people receiving the lower jobseeker payment, with about 40% now classed as having some type of impairment, up from about 25% in 2014.

At the same time, the average period people have spent on unemployment benefits has also consistently risen.

Some 100,000 disability support applications are made each year, but those who manage to complete job search requirements before applying make up a tiny fraction of overall claims. About 30% of claims are granted each year, down from about 70% in 2011.

Critics like Siewert argue many are instead left to languish on jobseeker payment.

These people are granted medical exemptions from their mutual obligations by their employment services provider, but this period does not count towards their 18 months of required job search.

“They get told you have to complete your program of support, but they’ve been too unwell to do it,” Siewert said.

A Department of Social Services spokeswoman said in “most cases people have already participated in a program of support when they decide to apply for DSP”.

She said employment service providers could inform Services Australia job search might not be suitable for some people for 18 months.

These people could then be “ticked off as meeting the [program of support] eligibility requirement”.

“Payment recipients who are otherwise exempt from meeting obligations are also able to volunteer to utilise programs of support without any penalties for not meeting typical requirements,” she said.