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Social security and time use during COVID-19

After years of campaigning to raise the rate of many working-age payments as they fell increasingly below the poverty line, the Australian Federal Government introduced a Coronavirus Supplement of $550 per fortnight in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, which effectively doubled payments for many income support recipients. At the same time, the conditions attached to welfare payments (‘mutual obligations’) were relaxed. This created a natural experiment to understand how increasing welfare payments and reducing punitive policies were experienced at the household level.

This research analyses the qualitative and quantitative responses of 173 respondents, some of whom received the Supplement and some who did not.

Key findings were that the Supplement was used for meeting basic needs, paying off household debt, and other strategic expenditures to improve long-term financial security; the increase in payments and reduction in mutual obligations led to dramatic increases in physical and mental health and wellbeing; and these changes led to an increase in time spent further education and engaging in the labour market. People were able to turn their attention away from day-to-day survival and towards envisioning and working towards a more economically secure future for themselves and their dependents. However, the research also captured the first reduction in the Supplement, which was already creating anxiety and stress for people.

This research both exposes the harshness of Australia’s current social security settings and demonstrated what is possible with a more supportive system.

This research was conducted by a coalition of members of the Treating Families Fairly alliance, including ANU, Swinburne, Good Shepherd and The Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare.

Download the report here