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A report released by the UNSW Sydney and ACOSS Poverty and Inequality Partnership reveals the deepest, most enduring economic damage of the COVID-19 pandemic has been felt in lower income areas across Australia. The same areas – outer north-west and south-east Melbourne, west and south-west Sydney, northern Adelaide, far North Queensland and regions between Brisbane and the NSW border – are also impacted by cuts to economic support in 2021. 

The COVID income support report looks at the changes in the number of people relying on income support payments between September 2019 and September 2021. Using a series of interactive maps, it compares data for federal electorates across Australia over the two-year period.

The report and accompanying maps provide the first geographic snapshot of people on income support payments who also received COVID-specific income support during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020. It also shows those on the lowest income support payments during the 2021 second wave, many of whom haven’t received additional COVID income support.

“This new research shows that the greatest overall increase in people relying on the lowest income support payments from September 2019 to September 2021 were in economically disadvantaged communities. These communities already faced high unemployment, as well as myriad other challenges. Let’s give them the chance to recover from the pandemic, rather than push them further into poverty,” said Professor Carla Treloar, Director of the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) at UNSW.

“Just because someone has the bad luck to live or work in a community affected by another wave of lockdowns, they have been locked into poverty. Those people and families affected the most will find it incredibly difficult to reconstruct their lives.”

Read more: New report: COVID-19 widens Australia's stark health income gap

Dr Cassandra Goldie, ACOSS CEO, said this research paints a dire picture for those people and communities who have been left with inadequate support in 2021.

“Unless we improve support now, income and social divides will fester across our major cities and outer urban areas.

“In 2020, we showed we could respond to adversity with cooperation, by providing economic security to the vast majority. Last year, average incomes actually rose, despite the deepest recession in almost a century.

“But this year is a starkly different story. COVID has left a scorched economic path, particularly in areas that were more disadvantaged pre-pandemic. In so many communities, we are leaving people behind. In 2021, the Disaster Payments left gaping holes. Those who lost employment or paid hours a week before or after a lockdown have received nothing beyond the existing grossly inadequate income support payments, such as the $45 a day JobSeeker payment,” Dr Goldie said.

Key findings in the report

  • From September 2019 (pre-pandemic) to October 2020 (during the peak of the first Alpha wave) the number of people needing to rely on income support – who became eligible for the Coronavirus Supplement – increased by 70 per cent.
  • Following the second wave, by September 2021, the number of people on these income support payments due to unemployment was 27 per cent higher than pre-pandemic. Due to much tighter eligibility, the vast majority of these people didn’t have access to any additional support, like the COVID-19 Disaster Payment.
  • The lower income regions before the pandemic have also seen the most dramatic increases in need to rely on income support, both in 2020 and 2021.
  • COVID-19 income support lifted many people out of paid work out of poverty. This was especially due to the $750 per week JobKeeper Payment and $275 per week Coronavirus Supplement, which together reached 44 per cent of the workforce. This meant the number of people in poverty fell from three million (11.5 per cent) before the pandemic to 2.6 million (9.9 per cent) in June 2020.
  • While people receiving these key income supports were eligible for the Coronavirus Supplement in 2020, more than 80 per cent – three-quarters of a million people – have been ineligible for the COVID Disaster Payment, despite living in lockdown areas.

The COVID income support report with accompanying maps is the first of the UNSW and ACOSS Poverty and Inequality Partnership’s COVID-19 Building Back Fairer series. The series aims to helps us understand the different aspects of change and who is affected most by the pandemic. It draws together data on the impacts of the COVID-19 recession on income support, employment, inequality, wealth and regions.