Centrelink office

Over successive budgets, the federal government has committed to slashing the number of successful claimants for the disability support pension (DSP), as part of strict “welfare-to-work” reforms. These policies aim to reduce spending and welfare dependence by forcing thousands of disadvantaged Australians into work via Newstart’s punitive system of mutual obligations and minimal income.

One of these people is Quang Huynh, a 30-year-old man from Dandenong, who relies solely on Newstart payments and family support to manage his health. Huynh is a type 2 diabetic with serious heart, liver and kidney conditions. He also experiences difficulty walking, due to visual impairment from diabetic retinopathy, which has left him virtually blind in his left eye. Routinely in and out of hospital, he also attends a heart failure clinic on a tri-monthly basis, as well as regular renal and diabetic outpatient clinics.

In spite of all this, Huynh’s application for a DSP was rejected this September, because his health problems didn’t score enough “points” on Centrelink’s increasingly stringent “impairment tables.”

In order to reduce the number of people on the benefit, the government is making it deliberately harder for people like Huynh to make successful claims. Statistics from the Department of Social Services indicated last year that only 15% (approximately a sixth) of all applicants were granted the pension. Compared to previous years, this high ratio of failure is staggering: in 2014-15 it was reported that more than a third of applicants were successfully making claims. This effectively means that, since 2014, there’s been more than a 50% drop-off in successful claimants.

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Huynh’s rejected claim has left him baffled, frustrated and incredibly stressed. “In my application I included a letter from my heart doctor as evidence,” he told me. This letter, written by Huynh’s cardiologist at Monash Health Dandenong, states that “ … his severe dilated cardiomyopathy is a life-threatening problem,” and even concludes that, “at present, he is not physically capable of participating in paid employment.”

“The doctor is mortified that I got rejected,” Huynh said. “She’s asking what can she do.”

Understandably, both Huynh and his doctors are unsure what they have to do to prove the severity of his ailments to Centrelink. Disadvantaged people on welfare are finding themselves under increasingly intense pressures to justify their receipt of payments, and establish the “worthiness” of their adverse conditions and disabilities.

For the last two years, Huynh has subsisted on Newstart, using medical certificates from his eye specialist to exempt himself from attending job agency meetings, training courses, and complying with other mutual job seeker obligations he physically can’t perform due to his health conditions.

Due in no small part to the sheer number of applicants now being disqualified from the DSP, it’s estimated that a quarter of the people currently on Newstart experience some type of disability. This effectively means tens of thousands of vulnerably ill Australians must participate in mandated job searches and other activities to receive the significantly reduced dole payment.

Huynh’s medical exemption from these obligations expired last month. “I’m in no condition to look for work and go to all the job meetings — I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

As a final resort, he has contacted the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union — an advocacy organisation for unemployed workers’ rights — for help. AUWU’s DSP officer is now helping Huynh launch an appeal.

Kim*, a middle-aged Indigenous woman from Ipswich, who suffers from angina, diabetes and anxiety, also had her DSP applications knocked back for similarly not meeting the strict eligibility requirements.

“I didn’t have it in me to fight the ruling or appeal because I was too sick,” she told me. “If they don’t let me onto it this time, I don’t know what it will take — I’m already on 30 tablets a day.”

Kim is right to feel anxious about her prospects. Over the past few years, there’s been some remarkable cases where even terminally ill patients have been deemed ineligible for the DSP. Yet, there still appears to be very little public pressure on the government to loosen these strict welfare eligibility requirements that clearly cause much duress.

Pushing people like Huynh and Kim off the DSP and onto the unemployment benefit yields a small saving for government and the taxpayer, but results in a significant loss of income for people who already struggle to get by. Considering that a quarter of disabled Australians already live below the poverty line (the highest rates in the OECD), this seems an astonishingly cruel way for us to cut costs. After all, Australia already ranks near the bottom of OECD nations when it comes to total welfare spending as a proportion of GDP — a stat kept conveniently quiet by pollies and pundits looking to further gut social security.

Rather than investing in policy that actually tackles the conditions that entrenches so many Australians in poverty, we’re more preoccupied with delegitimising vulnerable people’s claims for welfare. No matter how we try to justify or spin such “cost-saving” approaches, we are in effect choosing to punish people for being disabled.

*Name changed for privacy

Jeremy Poxon is freelance writer and a media officer for the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union.