COVID-19 has brought changes to the JobSeeker Payment (formerly Newstart Allowance), including increasing the fortnightly payment by $550 for up to six months. Last week a report released from Senate Inquiry into the Adequacy of JobSeeker called for the federal government to make the increase permanent.
Lecturer and discipline coordinator of Sociology at The University of Notre Dame Australia, Dr Louise St Guillaume, gave evidence at the Senate Inquiry in October 2019 and welcomed the report findings. At the time she addressed the Senate committee, Dr St Guillaume was halfway into a six-month fellowship with the Whitlam Institute (at Western Sydney University), researching the experiences of people with disability living on the unemployment benefit.
“While the changes to JobSeeker payments would likely be welcomed by my research participants, it is hoped that an increase to the rate of JobSeeker will be retained once the six months is over,” says Dr St Guillaume.
As part of her research, Dr St Guillaume interviewed a small sample of people with disability in the Western Sydney region who are on JobSeeker and are deemed to have a partial capacity to work. Her research found these people were often living in poverty. Many were unable to cover the costs of essential medical resources or treatment and struggled to meet the requirements of retaining the payment, which had a negative impact on their physical and mental health.
The research also highlighted problems with the Disability Support Pension (DSP) application process and employment service system. The findings were published as a research paper: Newstart, Poverty, Disability and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
“Hopefully the current economic and employment climate, and the changes to mutual obligation requirements [mutual obligation requirements are suspended, which means people do not need to attend appointments, search for work or complete any of the activities in their JobPlan, except report their income], will encourage the government to question the approach to employment for people with disability on JobSeeker,” says Dr St Guillaume.
Dr St Guillaume has a special interest in the research areas of disability and income support. She completed her PhD at Notre Dame in 2015 which examined how people with a partial capacity to work are governed in policy changes to the income support system and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
“Before COVID-19, 43% of people on the JobSeeker were people with disability,” says Dr St Guillaume. “While it is positive to see an increase to the rate of JobSeeker payment, it should be noted that the rate of the Disability Support Pension was not also raised to help cover the additional costs of people with disability during the pandemic. Serious consideration needs to be given to also increasing the rate of this payment.”
Dr St Guillaume’s research draws on the real experiences of people with disability to inform policy recommendations that take into account equality, access and human rights for people with disability. “I hope the research I’ve done will lead to policy change,” she says. “We need to look at the application process for disability-specific income support payments. We also need to think about the ongoing rate of JobSeeker, the expectations that are placed on those with disability who are living on the payment and the problems with the employment service system.
“It’s important to question how systems and structures, including the income support and employment systems, perpetuate ableism – they are designed around the able-bodied population so they don’t necessarily consider that someone with disability might experience discrimination.”