There is a mendicant underclass in Australia, and I’m sure you know exactly the sort of person I mean. This particular species of moocher demands generous subventions from the taxpayer in order to underwrite a life of easy pleasures, all the while refusing to work a day in return. The worst part is how many of them there are. Over the past decade, their ranks grew by nearly 25%. Their numbers are at a record high.

I’m talking, you understand, about babies. Did you know that there are 119,196 more of these odorous little cadgers than there were a decade ago?

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The reason no one cares is that most of us understand that the Australian population as a whole is growing, too. The indigent under-2s have gone from 2.53% of the population in 2003 to 2.68% in 2013. Terrifying, ain’t it?

But the simple arithmetic of numerator and denominator, which can be and is explained to primary school children, was too taxing for Geoff Chambers of the Daily Telegraph, who yesterday reached for the smelling salts when he discovered that 20,000 people have qualified in the past three years to receive the disability support pension. This, Chambers pointed out somewhat mysteriously, is “the equivalent of five Australian Army brigades”, leaving us to wonder whether he was proposing conscription for the disabled, or merely that his readers normally conceive of large numbers in units of Australian Army brigades.

Leaving aside the fuzziness of his numbers — he probably means a net addition of 20,000 in the DSP program, ignoring the much larger flows in and out of the program — is there really any cause for concern?

Well, what if we compare the number of disability pension recipients to the size of the population as a whole? There are two things we need to keep in mind: the DSP is a payment for working-age people with disabilities, so we should restrict our gaze to the working-age population (between the ages of 15 and 65). Also, women used to qualify for the old-age pension earlier than men did, and so moved from the DSP to the pension earlier. So in our definition of the working-age population we only consider women under 60. Making those adjustments, what do we find?

Proportion of working-age population receiving DSP

Don’t rush for the emergency exits, ladies and gentlemen; I think the good ship Australia may just pull through this one.

Nor, when you look into it, are the New South Wales figures any more terrifying. Although the Department of Social Services doesn’t break down the state figures by age, if we assume the age structure of the state to be the same as the rest of the country, the proportion of the state’s working-age population on DSP has gone from 5.1% in 2003 to 5.4% in 2013. An increase, sure — but hardly a stampede, either. And that number has been trending down since it peaked at 5.5% in 2011, anyway.

Not even Treasurer Joe Hockey can get worked up about it: the 2014-15 budget expects “low growth in DSP recipient numbers, with an estimated average growth of 0.25 per cent per annum over the forward estimates”. Added to the fact that the Australian population is getting older, and disabilities become more prevalent with age, the idea that the rise in recipient numbers is the result of a “culture of entitlement” is simply risible.

But though it’s easy to dismiss this latest hyperventilation as just another instance of innumerate tabloid dyspepsia — a genre in which the Tele does admittedly possess something of a comparative advantage — it’s not just the low-brow papers. Patricia Karvelas of The Australian had a bite at the same non-story earlier this year. For the fanatical centrists who tend to dominate “serious” policy discussion in the Australian media, the DSP is just another unpleasant example of a welfare state that proposes to help the less fortunate by actually giving them money. Cutting the DSP indexation rate is exactly the kind of thing that appeals to people for whom “tough” political decisions are by assumption sensible ones.

Sure, the argument goes, it might be nice to have some kind of safety net for the poor or provide adequate support for those with disabilities (and by the way, if you have a disability, you’re more likely to be poor, too) but not nice to the same extent as tax expenditures on superannuation and owner-occupied housing.

It will be a cruel thing indeed if people with disabilities are asked to bear the costs of fiscal consolidation, whether by a meaner DSP or a scaled-back disability insurance scheme. And if they are, then the journalists who bellowed for it will, one hopes, at least have the decency to feel ashamed about their part in it. Speaking of whom, Geoff Chambers is not the first Tele reporter to compare the number of DSP recipients in NSW to the number of Australians injured in war: it’s a line he borrowed from Gemma Jones. Slackers, indeed.

Fortunately, the next time the paper writes this story, the Tele’s plummeting circulation figures (293,512 weekday readers in the last quarter of 2013) will provide a fresh point of contrast: there’ll be more people in NSW on DSP than readers to be outraged by it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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