Unemployment benefits

The JobSeeker Payment is inadequate.

There is growing concern in our community that the JobSeeker Payment for unemployed people, previously called the Newstart Allowance, is inadequate. Australia is a prosperous nation, but now has one of the lowest unemployment payments in the developed world.

We welcomed the Federal Government’s commitment in March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, to double the Jobseeker Payment, initially for six months. This temporary measure was potentially an important step towards more permanent repair of Australia’s frayed safety net. However the Coronavirus Supplement was gradually reduced and ended in March 2021. 

A permanent increase to unemployment payments of just $50 a fortnight (or just $3.57 a day) was introduced from 1 April 2021.

How unemployment benefits began

When unemployment benefits were introduced in Australia back in the 1940s they were meant to be a short-term payment before people found a job. The payments were lower than pension rates and tight conditions were attached to them, including a willingness to work.

The job market in that era was very different from today's complex modern economy - full time employment for a largely male workforce prevailed.

Changes in our economy include more long-term jobless

Over the past 30 years or so, the job market has changed dramatically, with a decline in manufacturing, a rise in part-time jobs, and technological and demographic change. The costs of housing and energy have risen sharply, while wages growth has stagnated.

Long-term unemployment has grown, especially for mature-age job seekers, who tend to remain unemployed for twice as long as those aged 25 to 54.

Yet the base rate of the unemployment benefit has barely increased in real terms since 1994 – more than a quarter of a century.

JobSeeker Payment from 2020

In March 2020, the Newstart Allowance was renamed the JobSeeker Payment, as part of a package of changes to government working-age payments announced in the 2017–18 federal Budget. Other changes made at the same time included recipients of the Sickness Allowance moving onto the JobSeeker Payment.

Stark gap between the JobSeeker Payment and pensions

The unemployment payment was excluded from an increase to pensions in the 2009 federal Budget, and is indexed to prices only, unlike pensions which are indexed to wages. This means that over time the gap between the JobSeeker Payment and pensions such as the Age Pension and the Disability Support Pension has widened.

Single unemployed people receive as little as $334.20 a week – that’s $47.74 a day

For a single unemployed person, with no children, aged 22 or over, the JobSeeker Payment is just $668.40 a fortnight or $334.20 a week (as at September 2022). If they are renting privately they can also receive Rent Assistance of up to $151.60 a fortnight, which is payable if their rent is more than $337.54 a fortnight.

Low payments make hunt for jobs harder

Such a low payment makes it harder for unemployed people to seek work, for example by being able to pay for public transport and clothing to attend job interviews. It also hurts their ability to secure proper housing and, broadly, to live with dignity in a country with our standard of living.

Importantly, inadequate unemployment benefit payments also undermine Australia’s social cohesion, which affects all of us in the community. This issue needs to be addressed as a priority.

Further reading