Why ‘just getting a job’ when you’re on Centrelink isn’t always that simple

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“Just get a job”.

It’s the common trope many living on Centrelink payments hear again and again.

But social security recipients, academics and economists say “just getting a job” isn’t always straightforward.

Here’s why.

Disability and health a key issue

According to recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), a key barrier to labour force participation was having a disability or health condition.

Sharon Davis lives with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (MECFS) — a debilitating multi-system illness that severely impacts her physical and mental capacity — which gets worse the more she tries to push through it.

“It’s like having a hangover, jetlag and a terrible flu all at the same time, every day,” she said.

An actor with decades of work behind her in performing arts and in retail and hospitality, the 44-year-old’s health forced her out of the workforce.

She has been on the JobSeeker payment since mid-2022 and is occasionally able to pick up a few hours of casual teaching work.

Ms Davis would love to be able to exit the social security system, but said her health was holding her back.

She said before her illness, she was happy to take on all different kinds of employment.

“I want to work, but it’s all about the kind of work and the amount of hours and whether it’s sustainable for my health and to live on,” she said.

According to a report by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), 41 per cent of JobSeeker and Youth Allowance recipients in 2019 had disabilities.

Government statistics show roughly the same amount of JobSeeker recipients during September 2023, had a partial capacity to work, defined as an impairment preventing them from working 30 hours per week.

A tightening of the Disability Support Pension has made it harder for people to get onto the payment, said Elise Klein, a senior lecturer in public policy at the Australian National University.

“A lot of those folks find themselves classified as a job seeker and get the JobSeeker pay, which is much lower, and the assumption there is that you’re looking for work — but actually, people have very legitimate reasons why they can’t,” she said.

Caring duties

Unpaid care is also a significant barrier to workforce participation, particularly for women, ABS data shows.

Hundreds of thousands of people who perform caring duties receive Centrelink payments, whether through Carer or Parenting Payments, JobSeeker, or another payment.

Even for those who have some available time to work, it can be difficult to find an employer that can accommodate their caring responsibilities.

“Care work helps to hold up the economy and society, and a lot of folks doing this work receive social security payments,” Dr Klein said.

“We think of employment as the only form of work, but there’s actually many forms of work, and a lot of it’s unpaid. It doesn’t mean these people are not contributing at all.”

Location and the labour market

University of Melbourne professor and economist Jeff Borland said available jobs did not always fit the skills, experience and location of people who were unemployed, and a similar number of job vacancies to jobseekers did not mean those positions could be easily filled.

“The labour market is always in flux,” Professor Borland said.

“It’s always going to take time for the available jobs to get filled, and it may just be that there’s a mismatch between skills and where people live and where the jobs are — this is nothing to do with motivation.”

An economic downturn, when fewer jobs are created, can create further difficulties, he said.

Mutual obligations

This could be a controversial one, depending on who you ask.

Those who support mutual obligations, which includes successive governments, have stood by the system amid criticism.

“There is strong international and Australian evidence that mutual obligation requirements speed entry into employment,” the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations wrote in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry earlier this year.

“[They] also help target income support payments to those who are genuinely unable to support themselves.”

However, others say mutual obligations are a stressor that often lowers job search capability.

“There are questions about whether this system … actually helps people find work, because there’s evidence mounting [it doesn’t],” Dr Klein said.

Research has suggested those doing mutual obligations can take longer to become re-employed and spend less time in employment compared to those not doing mutual obligations — and if they did find work, it was in comparatively “lower quality” jobs.

When mutual obligations were temporarily lifted at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a survey of JobSeeker recipients indicated they were able to interact more meaningfully with the labour market.

The parliamentary enquiry into Workforce Australia is due to report by the end of November.

“Our system doesn’t care about things like productivity, workforce participation, economic security, human capital, or secure work. It literally only cares about kicking people off welfare at every moment,” Labor MP and chair Julian Hill told a conference in October.

“We will need to make recommendations on how to ensure the overarching goal of mutual obligations is to support participation, not pointlessly punish people.”

The ABC contacted both Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth and Employment Minister Tony Burke for comment.

‘Trapped in the system’

Dr Klein said comments such as “stop being lazy” and “get a job” perpetuated feelings of shame for social security recipients.

“There’s a world of difference between what the public gets fed, particularly by segments of the media and the political elite, and actually what is the reality of a jobseeker,” she said.

Professor Borland said, in his experience, which includes time on the government’s Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee, the vast majority of people receiving Centrelink payments were highly motivated to work.

“Effort in searching for work can matter. But it’s also the case that, very definitely, other things matter as well,” he said.

He said poverty made it more difficult to get into employment.

“Having the money to be able to afford things like transport costs, the cost of clothing that you might need to be able to … look presentable,” he said.

“Research on what’s called ‘mental scarcity’ also says when people are financially insecure, their thinking can be taken up by just how to get by … and that can crowd out the time they otherwise would have spent on a job search.”

Other hidden barriers can include name discrimination, with research from Monash University and King’s College London, finding applicants from ethnic minorities were almost half as likely to receive a call back than applicants with English names when they applied for a non-leadership position.

Postcode discrimination can also have an impact.

Meanwhile, Sharon Davis is “taking baby steps” to get back into employment as she works on her health.

She said she would like to see those who made judgements that welfare recipients were “lazy” to try living on the payment themselves.

“When you are on such a small amount of money that you are in poverty, it’s really difficult to actually get out of that cycle, and so a lot of people end up trapped within the system,” she said.

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By the Specialist Reporting Team’s Evan Young (Original ABC Article)