Government payments worth knowing about


You may qualify and not even know it – so it pays to check.

A bit of awareness can really pay off


It may have come to your attention that Australia is one of the priciest places to live on the planet, so your next step would be to get fully across the many government support payments on offer.

That would be a tall order, however. The Commonwealth's Department of Human Services (DHS) handed out $114.4 billion across about 24 support schemes in 2016–17, and about 15 more schemes are available through other federal agencies.

But knowing which ones you may be eligible for – let alone receiving a benefit – will take some effort.

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Little-known programs

You've probably heard of the big-ticket federal programs like the Newstart Allowance ($545.80 per fortnight if you're over 22 and out of work, more if you've got kids or are over 60); or the Child Care Subsidy (85% of your child-care costs if your family income is less than $66,958 – and your child is immunised).

But have you caught wind of the Commonwealth's Sickness Allowance, Mobility Allowance, Crisis Payment or Special Benefit?

You can be forgiven if you're in the dark: The DHS didn't launch any advertising or communication campaigns in 2016–17.

State governments have their own payment plans on offer as well, and they can arrive and disappear before you have a chance to grab your share.

They range from a $100 Creative Kids rebate in NSW (starting in January 2019) to $650 toward an overdue energy bill in Victoria if you can't afford to pay.

NSW offers more than 40 such programs, including free fishing licenses, money for vocational training courses and energy rebates for people who have life-support equipment in their homes.

None of these cash injections will leave you rolling in clover – and you'll have to be a citizen, resident or visa holder and meet other criteria to access them – but they can help take the sting out of economic pain.

And there's plenty of that going around these days.

Spare cash in short supply

According to the most recent Household Financial Comfort Report by Members Equity Bank (a survey-based report that ME Bank has released every six months since 2011), finances are tight for plenty of people in world's 20th richest country.

As of June 2018, over a quarter of Australians had less than $1000 in cash savings, and 45% were experiencing mortgage stress (defined as spending more than 30% of family income on home-loan repayments), the report says.

And that's just one indicator among many. June data from the ABS shows cost of living pressures are up on all fronts – for working households, self-funded retirees and pensioners.

Governments want to help – at least a little.

Awareness and application issues

Most of the government support schemes out there aren't splashed across billboards or getting a lot of airplay, so maybe you didn't know that the NSW government will pay for half of your new TV and 40% of a new fridge if you're eligible (through the state's "appliance replacement offer").

But it may take a while for the money to come through.

Christine Craik, national president of the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), says that while the information for financial support programs is available on the DHS website, getting hold of the benefits is another matter.

"The overall interface between the system and the people is not user-friendly," Craik says. "People find it difficult to provide the supporting evidence that substantiates their eligibility for assistance. And the process is onerous, as is demonstrated in the drought assistance package [the $12,000 payment for affected farmers announced in early August]."

In the experience of social workers and their clients, the government "takes a punitive approach to people who cannot meet the regime's requirements," Craik says.

"The approach taken by the current and successive governments is not based on the view that people are entitled to be treated with respect and that income support should provide a safety net to ensure everyone experiences a healthy standard of living. Our members' experience is that, instead, the government sees its role as enforcing a compliance regime."

But making the effort can pay off. So in case you're not a tech billionaire, here's a selective rundown of some of the lesser-known gestures of largesse from your friends in high places.

Mum and dad money

Receiving the more generous parent-related federal benefits often begins with qualifying for the Family Tax Benefit Part A, the government's general measuring rod for determining whether you're deserving of other benefits.

Eligibility will depend on your family income and other assets, plus how many kids you have, but you can make upwards of $100,000 and still qualify for a partial benefit in many cases.

When it comes to the more obscure schemes, it's hard to know whether the uptake is low, but the numbers are intriguing. In the first three months of 2018, there were 1037 recipients of the Double Orphan Pension (for people aged 16 to 19 who've lost one parent, with the other either in jail for at least 10 years or otherwise not around) and 6064 recipients of the Sickness Allowance (for people over 22 who have a job, but can't work due to illness) as compared to the 1,336,985 who received federal rent assistance.

In 2016–17, there were 32,000 Sickness Allowance claims finalised as compared to 662,000 Newstart claims.

The average duration of Sickness Allowance was 56 weeks (at $545.80 per fortnight, and $590.40 if you have dependent children), though the Department of Social Services (DSS) reports that only about 68% of recipients received the right level of payment for their situation. (The DSS sets policy, while the DHS administers payments.)

Does 32,000 claims mean uptake is comparatively low for the Sickness Allowance and other smaller programs? 

We obtained data sets showing how many people are accessing the various federal payment and support schemes, but both the DSS and the payments-focused DHS wouldn't or couldn't provide data around eligible recipients versus level of uptake.

One department referred us to the other, and vice versa, and no recent research projects commissioned by DHS focused on this issue.

But it seems reasonable to assume that there are some eligible recipients out there who end up empty-handed.

Help for parents and the bereaved

With that in mind, here's the rundown on three federal programs you may not have heard of that are designed to help young parents whose income is spotty at best, people who've lost their partners, and the dental health of Australia's children.

Newborn Payment and Supplement:

If you qualify for the Family Tax Benefit Part A, you'll also qualify for the Newborn Payment, but accessing it only makes sense if you're not eligible for the Parental Leave Pay Scheme, whose restrictions include actually being on leave, having worked enough hours in the preceding 13 months and making less than $150,000 as an individual in the previous financial year. In 2016–17, just over half (52.7%) of all mothers in Australia accessed this scheme.

While not as generous as the $719.35 per week (before tax) for 18 weeks paid by the Parental Leave Scheme, the Newborn Payment can work as a consolation payment for parents who don't qualify for the scheme and are dealing with the costs of a new member of the family.

Eligibility:

  • Qualify for Family Tax Benefit Part A and not access Parental Leave Pay.

What's on offer:

  • A lump sum payment of $550 per child plus a total of $1649.83 for your first child (or double that if you have twins) and $550.55 for each additional child. You can receive the money in a lump sum (after dutifully filing your taxes) or through fortnightly payments as part of your Family Tax Benefit Part A payments.

The government is also willing to lend a hand if you end up with triplets or even quadruplets to look after, which is where the Multiple Birth Allowance comes in.

Multiple Birth Allowance:

Eligibility:

  • Qualify for Family Tax Benefit Part A, pay private rent, be a family dealing with the birth of three or four children at once.

What's on offer:

  • $4120.85 per year for triplets and $5489.60 for quadruplets until age 16 (or 18 if at least three are in full-time study until then) as part of your Family Benefit Part A payments.

Bereavement Allowance

Eligibility:

  • A partner you were living with died within 14 weeks of applying, you don't have a new partner, you don't receive income-support payments and you meet income and asset tests.

What's on offer:

  • Up to $826.20 a fortnight for up to 14 weeks depending on your financial circumstances.

According to the DHS, only 1000 bereavement claims (which are generally only available to low-income earners) were finalised in both 2015–16 and 2016–17.

Child Dental Benefits Schedule

Eligibility:

  • The child must be aged between two and 17 and eligible for Medicare, and their family, guardian or carer must qualify for Family Tax Benefit Part A.

What's on offer:

  • Benefits for basic dental services capped at $1000 per child over two consecutive calendar years.

How to find out if you're eligible

It's rarely a simple thing to find out which federal government payments you might be eligible for, but the DHS has made an effort to assist. 

Its payment and service finder tool lets you select the options that best describe your circumstances, then explore a list of possible payments and services you may be entitled to.

Mistakes happen

The DSS reports that it met its performance measures on all fronts in 2016–17 and that DHS has an overall payment accuracy rate of 95.17%.

But mistakes do happen. The agency had debts related to overpaid social security recipients of $1.5 billion over the same 12 months. It recovered nearly a billion of that while waving around $90 million in debt.

In 2005, the DSS issued a report about problems with its Child Support Scheme, including that it assessed gross rather than net income when determining how much support to give. (The scheme has since been overhauled.)

Money from the state

Federal government support tends to stick to the enduring fundamentals of human need, while the states tend to give out money (and less of it) aimed at addressing the issues of the day. Here’s a rundown on some of the programs on offer in Australia's two most populous states.

NSW

With over 40 rebates available, there's a lot of cash up for grabs for NSW residents, from help with your energy bills to free car registration if you spend an average of $25 per week on road tolls.

Here are some highlights:

  • Creative Kids Rebate: Starting in 2019, every school-age child in NSW will be eligible for $100 to help pay for "creative and cultural activities", including language classes, visual and performing arts, and coding and digital training.
  • Family Energy Rebate: Up to $180 for families receiving the Family Tax Benefit.
  • Active kids program: $100 for schoolkids towards sports and fitness programs.
  • CTP Greenslip refunds: Partial refunds on your compulsory third party car insurance.

Find a full list of NSW rebates here:

Victoria

  • Annual Energy Concession: 17.5% of electricity usage and service costs for Pensioner, Health Care and Veterans Affairs Gold card concession holders – doesn't apply to the first $171.60.
  • Utility relief grant: Up to $650 toward a utility bill you can't afford to pay, available to Pensioner, Health Care and Veterans Affairs Gold card concession holders.
  • Camps, Sports and Excursions Fund: Money for school camps, trips and other programs, $125 a year (primary school) and $225 per year (secondary school) for Veterans Affairs Gold, Centrelink Health Care, Pensioner Concession Card holders and temporary foster parents.
  • Good Money Financial Services: No-interest and low-interest loans plus financial counselling for people on low incomes.


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