Using Food Charity to Fill the Gaps in the Australian Welfare State

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Hayley McKenzie, Rebecca Lindberg and Fiona McKay. Click here to access the article.

Despite 26 per cent of Australians aged over 16 years receiving some form of government income support, more than one in ten Australians live in poverty. The cause of this is the low financial value of many welfare payments, leaving people to rely on charity. While Australia prides itself on having a strong social safety net, clearly some people are falling through the cracks. This research asks how people navigate and experience systems of welfare and food charity.

The Australian welfare system 

Welfare in Australia aims to support people who can’t fully support themselves by providing income support. The system is premised on liberal principles, encouraging recipients to enter the workforce as soon as they can. There are a range of supports for different life experiences, all set at different rates, with different conditions and requirements. 

Poverty significantly impacts people on welfare. This can be partly explained by the rate of welfare support payments for those seeking employment, which for single people without children, are generally below the poverty line. The need to increase these payments has been an ongoing concern for many advocacy groups. As we have previously show, many people receiving welfare need additional support to prevent going without (McKenzie & McKay, 2017). 

We spoke with 78 people who were accessing food charity. You can find the full details of the participants here (McKay et al., 2020). Our conversations resulted in two main findings. The first related to the challenges people experience when navigating the welfare system, and the second relates to the impact of low welfare payments on their financial position. 

Serious challenges when navigating the welfare system

The Australia has a centralised welfare system with multiple intersecting parts, but on many occasions different divisions do not seem to talk to each other. These complexities within the system place the onus on the individual to navigate the welfare system. 

The various processes and policies that people need to understand and adhere to, and the multitude of systems that interact, made the whole system challenging. Participants described the time-consuming nature of engaging with the welfare system, the lack of plain language information available, the challenges with communicating with welfare services staff, and the many requirements they needed to meet. 

All activities related to accessing welfare and the welfare system were time consuming. Changing details, asking questions, and accessing assistance can take hours, limiting the amount of time participants could spend elsewhere. What should be simple communication about changes to eligibility, payment requirements or other details often involved long waiting times, either in person or on the phone, with participants often planning their day around attending a single appointment. 

Managing and accessing resources 

Welfare payment amounts depend on eligibility, with some payment types – such as the aged pension – hundreds of dollars more than others. Those who were not yet eligible for the aged pension were looking forward to becoming eligible once they met the age requirements. These participants were optimistic that the extra money would be make a big difference given they had already been making ends meet on less.

Welfare recipients have the option to have their rent and utility bills paid before they receive the balance of their benefit, and they are also able to enter a payment management plan with utility companies. As a result, food was often the main discretionary item that could be reduced when money was tight. At times when other expenses needed to be paid, all participants described accessing food charity to mitigate the low payment amount. 

While the payments have not increased over time, the cost of living has. Participants had difficulty meeting the costs of their basic needs, like food and utilities, because of the widening gap between income and expenses. Despite the low income, participants who were in receipt of government welfare for an extended period were master budgeters: prioritise housing costs at the expense of other costs, including any activity that might come with a cost and preventative health care.

What does this mean?

Australian welfare payments for those seeking employment are designed for short term use but are often used for a lifetime. Research suggests that a growing portion of welfare recipients are long term unemployed or welfare dependent, leading to a perpetuating cycle of dependence. 

Engagement with the welfare system comes with assumed knowledge and the ability to access and interpret the resources provided, in addition to having the time to be able to apply these. Participants in this study struggled with all these issues. The Australian welfare system assumes that people have the ability and the resources to navigate the system and know precisely which payments and support they are eligible. It also assumes that they have the time to do this, discounting the other obligations or life events, such as care giving, domestic violence, poor health, or grief. 

Poverty and welfare dependence are time consuming. Other research has found that people experiencing poverty are often so preoccupied with the challenges of daily living that they have less ‘bandwidth’ with which to make good choices (Schofield & Venkataramani, 2021). Our research has found that the time-consuming nature of poverty means that people often wait for long periods simply to access the services, either in a physical queue, or on a waiting list for service (McKay et al., 2020; Lindberg et al., 2022). An important finding from this study is the trap that these participants are in: where they are waiting, queueing, and providing documents and other administrative proof for both the state and the charity sector. This is a trap many struggle to get out of. 

Despite many participants in this study experiencing long term need, they cycle through a bureaucratic process that was designed to provide short term assistance. The low financial amounts provided to recipients mean many people are required to seek support outside the government-provided welfare sector simply to make ends meet. As a result, food charity is now inextricably linked with the welfare system in Australia, creating a system where the formal welfare system is reliant on the informal charity system to provide support for those in need.

About the authors

Hayley McKenzie is Lecturer at Deakin University, Australia.

Rebecca Lindberg is Research Fellow at Deakin University, Australia.

Fiona McKay is Associate Professor at Deakin University, Australia.


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