“I applied for Youth Allowance for the first time in November last year, when I had just turned 18. That was rejected in January. My parents earn just over the income threshold,” Grace*, a first-year student at USyd, told Honi.
“So that meant I had to apply again. I went with my caseworker at the time, and we had to fill out all the forms. I had to prove temporary independence, so I had to fill out three more forms. I had to get my parents to fill out one, saying that me living at home was not psychologically conducive to any form of study. My third-party [the caseworker] had to fill out one.
“I had to show all of my brother’s [autism] diagnoses, to show that he has high needs, and is home-schooled. I had to prove my own mental issues.
“Then they had to contact the over-18’s team from January to reassess my form. And I had to speak to them on the phone as well. I had to verbally prove everything: how much rent I’m paying, how long it takes me to get to uni. That was approved in May, that was a good five months it took.
“It was a really long and challenging process to navigate on my own, and very frustrating. It was very invasive for my brother, and for myself.”
Students who are younger than the Youth Allowance “age of independence” of 22 cannot receive financial support from the government unless their parents have income and assets below a specified threshold. Alternatively, they must prove they fall within a number of categories that make them financially independent from their parents. Notably, if your parents are unable to, or do not, provide you financial support, you are not exempt from this restriction — except if they are in prison, a nursing home, missing, or mentally ill.
This means that hundreds of thousands of students aged between 18 and 21 are denied access to financial support while at university. This is only one consequence of a deeply broken youth welfare system that is leaving students behind.
While the independence requirements are students’ primary obstruction to vital income support, Honi was told by students that other restrictive criteria, pertaining to work and study loads and immigration status, locked young people out of accessing Youth Allowance for arbitrary and unfair reasons.
Their stories are supported by unreleased 2023 data from the Department of Social Services, which shows that the amount of young people receiving Youth Allowance has trended downwards since 2015. There have been no changes to who is eligible for Youth Allowance since the Gillard government; students are gradually being forced off a system that is meant to help them.
Youth Allowance is only available to students who are studying full time, so Sarah*, in her third year of an undergraduate degree at USyd, is ineligible for payments: she told Honi that “full-time study isn’t feasible right now because of chronic illness.” Accordingly, she has had to increase her casual work hours in order to survive.
“I am in this grey area where I am not ‘disabled enough’ to receive other forms of support, or exemptions from study requirements, so I was redirected to JobSeeker which was a cursed experience.
“I am lucky, now that my health situation has improved somewhat, that I am able to work more to compensate for what I am missing out on [by not being eligible for Youth Allowance],” she said.
“But I wouldn’t say it’s the fairest, the idea that you have to be full-time to access Youth Allowance. This isn’t an option for people with chronic health issues.
“When I think about the criteria for Youth Allowance, I think that it’s screwing over a lot of people who have already been screwed over. It punches down.”
Other students told Honi that they were locked out of Youth Allowance for other reasons, including because of the four-year wait that permanent residents have to endure before being able to access Centrelink, or because, despite working 25-hour weeks on the minimum wage, Youth Allowance requires that young people work 20-hour weeks for at least 18 months before being considered independent.
These requirements have left students in situations where they are forced to work 25- or 30-hour weeks just to pay rent, and, if ineligible for HECS loans (as is the case for Hamish*), to help their parents pay their university fees up-front.
“I’m completely exhausted,” Hamish said.
The rationale for Youth Allowance’s restrictive criteria is that parents earning above a certain threshold can, and do, support their children. However, for students who spoke to Honi, this is frequently not the case.
“I wasn’t allowed access to Youth Allowance until I was 22 because my parents were above the threshold. This meant that the government assumed I had financial support but that was far from the truth. In first and second year, I experienced periods of time when I had McDonalds apple pie three times a day. My friends also offered to pay for my Opal fares for a while,” an anonymous USyd student told Honi.
“This is not on my parents as they provided me small amounts of financial help for rent but that was it. That was genuinely all they could do to help.”
For Grace, whose mother works part-time to look after her brother who has autism and high needs, and whose father works full-time as well as also being a full-time carer, support from her parents is “not at all” possible.
“They have their own expenses, their own mortgage, food, car, looking after three other children apart from me. I just don’t think it is reasonable at all.”
“My issue accessing Youth Allowance was that my only parent was on a pension and doesn’t pay tax. The Centrelink system could not handle that,” another student told Honi.
“It was this blanket thing of ‘how much tax did your parents pay?’ but the answer was zero, because of the pension.
“USyd is 500km from home, so I had to live out of home to attend uni but Centrelink’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ forms and system meant I had to keep putting in forms for ages, [an ordeal] made harder as my parent 500km [away] was dealing with a different Centrelink office to help. It took months but was finally [back paid].”
For this student, the arduous process of accessing Youth Allowance has been a hallmark of their experience receiving income support.
The same is true for Amelia*, a fourth-year secondary education student. Amelia said that “government support networks are so hard to go through if you want to receive anything. I found the admin and the paperwork really convoluted. It was such a long process where you have to keep on proving things. I had to get my mum to do the parental income forms, and she wouldn’t have time to do it.”
Amelia’s Youth Allowance payment ended because her mother didn’t have time to fill out the paperwork required. However, she says that she “couldn’t be bothered to go back and reapply for it. It’s very bureaucratic, and inaccessible, and when something goes wrong you have to sit on the phone for two hours with Centrelink.”
Sarah had the same experience. “I’m not receiving the payment anymore. I realised that it was a better option for me to just work more hours than go through the process of dealing with and navigating the system.
“It’s a pretty harrowing, or intimidating experience. It feels like the government is saying ‘work or die’. It’s very exhausting.
“One of my friends said to me, that ‘If this is what receiving welfare involves, then I’d rather be poor.’
“They said this as a light-hearted joke, but when I think about it, it says a lot about the nature of the system, and how the process is against you.”
The difficulty young people face in accessing Youth Allowance, even if they technically meet the criteria for accessing it, is a substantial barrier for students in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. In addition to having to study, work, or meet caring obligations, the bureaucratic requirements imposed by Centrelink are often the difference between receiving income support and not.
Clearly, for students who are neurodivergent, or who face additional barriers to working with government systems, this difficulty is particularly acute.
Grace, who has ADHD, says that “it was really difficult to advocate for myself, working full-time and being a young carer. The amount of times I cried doing it…
“My parents aren’t able to advocate for me, either. Due to growing up in poverty, my mother has severe trauma from the Centrelink process herself, so wasn’t able to help me in that way. But my caseworker was very helpful.
“I’m very lucky to have access to external support [in the form of a caseworker]. However, I do know other people who have had similar cases and have just given up.”
A 2022 report by the National Union Students examining the Youth Allowance system and student poverty found that students who are Indigenous, have a disability, are queer, or who are experiencing family violence, were disproportionately left behind by the Youth Allowance system.
Queer students, and students experiencing family and domestic violence, found it difficult in proving to the government that it was in fact unreasonable to live at home. This was because it is often unsafe to ask their parents, or another eligible person (such as a teacher) to sign a Statutory Declaration proving it is unsafe for them to live at home.
For students who are single, have no children, are over 18 and “need to live away from [their] parent’s home,” the maximum amount of Youth Allowance you can receive is $562.80 a fortnight, as well as $157.20 in Rent Assistance. The Henderson Poverty line for the same person is approximately $31,000.
In the same way that the age of independence being 22 is entirely arbitrary, the rate of Youth Allowance is also arbitrary. Indeed, it is less than other comparable forms of income support: the maximum rate of JobSeeker for a single person aged over 22 is $693.10 a fortnight, and the aged pension for a single person is $971.50 a fortnight. When the Albanese government lifted the rate of income support, including Youth Allowance and JobSeeker, in this year’s budget, it announced that some unemployed people aged 55-59 would be eligible for an additional payment. Young people will not.
Grace, when talking about this increase for over-55s, said that she was “just confuse[d]”. “Are they paying off their HECS debt? Why are they getting more than people working two jobs? Why do people over 55 get more, when all of my Centrelink payment [both Youth Allowance and Rent Assistance] is used to pay my rent?
“I still have to work to be able to socialise, to access psychological support (which can cost up to $350 dollars for a half an hour session). My parents can’t help me pay for that.”
Sarah described the rate of Youth Allowance as “not enough”.
“With inflation, the Youth Allowance payments definitely need to be lifted up a lot more if the government wants to provide people with more substantial support.”
The National Union of Students, as well as other welfare advocates, have repeatedly called on the government to raise the rate of Youth Allowance (and other income support payments) to at least $88 dollars a day. This would bring the payment above the poverty line. The NUS found that student poverty exacerbated mental health issues, their financial wellbeing, their experience of education, and of intersecting crises such as family violence.
The effect of student poverty is exacerbated by the ongoing housing and cost of living crises, as well as the lack of available and affordable GP clinics and mental health care.
It is also clear that student poverty, as well as being forced to work and study while receiving Youth Allowance, has a negative effect on student’s ability to attend university and to perform well.
As Grace says, “My first semester was really really difficult for me. I had to discontinue from a few subjects, and I was just passing the rest.
“The psychological impact of having to navigate the Centrelink system, having to work, the financial anxiety, played a huge part in my first semester at university. I’ve just treated it as a write-off.
“I’m the first in my family to attend university; I come from a school in a low socio-economic status area, so just navigating the uni system was hard enough.”
In the recently released Universities Accord interim report, the Accord panel noted that “it is important that students are not being required to work excessive hours,” saying that the current income support system creates “complex, create perverse incentives for some students and leave others missing out.”
Accordingly, the broken Youth Allowance system does not only affect the students who need to access these payments but it touches at the very nature of Australian society: financial barriers to accessing and succeeding at university push financially disadvantaged people away from study, and in doing so entrench inequality at a structural level.
Sarah told Honi that “if you do get that financial support, you can actually focus on your studies, instead of having to work to make ends meet, to make rent.” She also noted that financial support would allow students to engage in extra-curricular activities, some of which are vital in being able to access graduate roles.
The rationale behind the current Youth Allowance system — and indeed a large part of the Australian welfare system — is that income support must be targeted at those who need it the very most. In turn, this creates a web of bureaucracy surrounding access to these payments. As we have seen, many students who need income support invariably miss out as a result, either because the eligibility rules are too inflexible, or because the bureaucracy becomes too difficult to deal with — a problem that is not helped by the low rate of the payments themselves.
However, this rationale has left means testing as the government’s only tool to maintain a welfare state. Instead of taxing the wealthy and corporations — and generally broadening and deepening the tax base — the bi-partisan approach has been to limit access to welfare payments as far as possible. In the case of Youth Allowance, this means assuming that parents earning over a certain threshold will support their kids, instead of taxing the parents’ wealth and providing their adult children with a respectable level of income support.
However, increasing taxes cannot be the only solution. Australia’s attitude to welfare is one in which the experiences of people receiving, or needing, income support are actively neglected and dismissed.
As Grace said, “A lot of people who are in government, just went to uni, and didn’t have to deal with anything else.
“There’s a huge stigma and embarrassment to be on Centrelink as well. I just see a lot of people with misconceptions about it. Financially dependent people think being financially independent is easy. But they don’t understand it until they’re financially independent.”
* Names changed