One of the tools used by the government in pursuit of ‘welfare cheats’ is data-matching. The Data-matching Program cross-checks income and personal details held by one agency against similar data held by other agencies, primarily the Australian Taxation Office. The focus of this program is identifying overpayments amongst existing welfare assistance recipients (the difference between overpayment and fraud is not often explained in public reporting of ‘welfare cheating’). However, this focus results in neglect of those people who may be eligible for assistance but are not receiving it. This paper considers how data-matching could also be used to improve the delivery of social security assistance payments rather than simply as a revenue raising exercise.
The Australia Institute analysed the Centrelink administered Parenting Payment in order to estimate how many people may be missing out on assistance payments. It was found that in 2008-09 an estimated 113,176 Australian families missed out on assistance for which they appeared to qualify for. The mean value of the estimated payment being missed was $206.63 a week, which potentially adds up to $46.8 million in fortnightly payments, or $1,216 million per annum being missed, should these families have been eligible for the payment for the whole year. This estimate means that for every four recipients of the Parenting Payment one family appears to have been missing out.
In 2009-10 data-matching by Centrelink found that in nine per cent of the cases reviewed there was some level of overpayment. In contrast, convictions for fraud represent less than 0.1 per cent of all cases reviewed by Centrelink. This small number demonstrates just how populist rhetoric about ‘welfare cheats’ actually is. Interestingly, this paper finds that the number of people estimated to be missing out on assistance payments is greater than the number of people committing welfare fraud and is closer to the number receiving an overpayment. For example it was found that a similar proportion of parents who do not report receiving Parenting Payment appear to be eligible for payment to those identified as receiving an overpayment.
Beyond Centrelink’s current focus on fraud and overpayment, the potential exists to use data-matching to find people who may be missing out on assistance. The Australia Institute found overwhelming public support (75 per cent) for the government to do more to find people who are missing out on assistance payments. The government is already helping people find lost or unclaimed superannuation; there is a clear need for a similar service that helps people claim assistance, and data-matching has the potential to make such a service possible.