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May 23, 2014

Are we under threat from an army of the disabled? Not quite

Despite the Daily Telegraph's hyper-ventilation over disability support pension recipients, the most important number is trending downward. Economist Tom Westland reports.

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?

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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10 thoughts on “Are we under threat from an army of the disabled? Not quite

  1. form1planet

    Gold! I have not laughed so hard at a chart since, OK, since yesterday when PollBludger had to adjust his y-axis. Perfect takedown of an utterly ludicrous piece of tabloid fearmongering.

    I’m confused though – are we thanking Tom Westland or Bernard Keane for this wee gem? Both are credited at the top.

  2. Myriam Robin

    It’s a Tom Westland masterpiece – we’re fixing it now.

  3. Matt Hardin

    The graph even has a Y axis that would tend to exaggerate any change. You are right, absolute gold!

  4. Rob Watts

    good article. the war analogy was worth a cartoon. (ww2 was it). maybe a disabled drone pilot overflying democratic afgani limb lost poppy farmers exporting heroin to pain filled aussies under the trans asia freetrade nod and wink. or tony and murdoch are working in a sheltared worshop making plastic pallets wondering aloud whether the aussie prison industries or the chinese or robots will undercut their sub minimum wage

  5. The Pav

    Surely there is a cause of action under the TPA for false and misleading conduct as the DT falsely claims to be a news paper.

    Anybody who buys it under that misapprehension has been defrauded

  6. seriously?

    The Pav – the judge would have you committed if you put that claim up for thinking the DT (or any other piece of News Limited muck) is a newspaper. It would be like saying you believed icanhascheezburger was a newspaper too.

  7. The Pav


    I’m not he one claiming the DT is a NEWSpaper….That’s their fraudulent claim

  8. fractious

    Wot form1planet sed – a spot-on demolition of an entirely invented crisis (now where have I come across one of those recently?). And made all the more readable thanks to a delightful, dryly sarcastic delivery – more please.

  9. StefanL

    How about using the same time scales :
    roughly 12,000 new babies per year and 6,600 new disability pensioners per year.
    If that continues long enough then the proportion of the working age population on the DSP will rise significantly.

  10. Brendan

    No, Stefan. Over 300,000 babies are born in Australia per year and that figure increases steadily from year to year. The number of DSP entrants per year varies wildly, from around 20,000 in 2011, to 9000 in 2012, to negative 5000 in 2013. But the only relevant figure is the number of working age Australians to DSP recipients, as outlined by Tom.