How Centrelink’s partner income assessment affects Australia’s most vulnerable

For some Australians, entering a relationship can have devastating consequences on their income, savings and retirement plans.

Amidst a mounting cost-of-living crisis, there is a growing chorus of voices urging the federal government to reconsider the partner income assessment conducted by Centrelink for individuals relying on welfare benefits.

A recent petition, aimed at ending the partner income assessment for disability support pension recipients, has gained significant traction and is awaiting a response from the Department of Social Services.

One individual, referred to as Laura, speaking to The West Australian, reveals that her partner’s earnings caused a drastic reduction in her carers’ payment, leaving her unable to afford potentially life-saving medical tests.

“I have MRI screenings because I’ve got a high risk of pancreatic cancer due to family history,” she said.

“That costs us, like, $500 a year. I’m no longer doing that because I can’t afford it.”

As a dedicated caregiver to four adopted children with various developmental disabilities, Laura’s carer’s payment is heavily affected by her husband’s income.

If she were single, her payment would be around $800 per fortnight, but instead, she receives only a quarter of that amount. The means and income testing procedures make Laura feel undervalued and dehumanised, as she struggles to cover the rising cost-of-living expenses.

Her partner, who used to have a high-earning blue-collar job, recently became a security guard to be able to spend more time helping Laura care for the children.

“He dropped his income by about a third in order to be more available,” she said.

Despite the pay cut, her husband’s earnings still heavily affect Laura’s ability to rely on the carer’s payment.

“On average, if he does a 48-hour week and 12-hour shifts, he makes about $1600 a week,” Laura said. “My carer’s payment then drops down to about $100 a week.”

The impact of partner income assessment on carers such as Laura goes beyond financial constraints. She feels undervalued. “What it means to me is that they don’t value what I do as a carer and that I’m not an individual,” she said.

Being a full-time carer leaves her unable to seek additional income, resulting in the depletion of their savings.

Moreover, the absence of accruing superannuation poses another concern. Laura acknowledges that, at her age, she should be building a solid financial foundation for the future. However, due to the limitations imposed by partner income assessment, she anticipates having minimal superannuation when she reaches retirement age.

Services Australia states that couples living together and receiving a pension experience reductions in their welfare support once their combined income exceeds $336 per fortnight. Pensions gradually decrease by 50 cents for each additional dollar earned beyond this threshold.

Highlighting the financial strain further, the median rent in Perth, as reported by The West Australian in May, stands at $550 per week. This adds to the growing challenges faced by welfare recipients, exacerbating their struggle to meet basic living expenses.

Emma Downing, 32 a resident of Bunbury, shares a similar sentiment, describing the experience of relying on her partner’s income as akin to asking for “pocket money”. Emma’s disability means she can only work limited hours, and her income primarily goes toward medical costs, leaving her dependent on her partner for other expenses. This dependency can create a power dynamic that can undermine a sense of financial freedom and individuality.

Shared income within a household

The partner income assessment is based on the assumption that income and assets are shared within a household. However, this assumption fails to consider situations where resources are withheld or controlled by one partner, potentially exacerbating financial abuse.

Experts, such as Associate Professor Helen Hodgson from Curtin University, suggest that finding a balance between financial autonomy and appropriate support for high-income households is crucial. Means testing should take into account household circumstances and the number of dependants to accurately determine an individual’s need for welfare assistance.

Means testing grapples with striking a balance between promoting financial independence and avoiding unnecessary assistance to households with high incomes.

“Speaking from the perspective of gender economics, we always say people need to be self-sufficient,” she said. “You do have this dilemma where you can ask, ‘what happens if one person withholds access to those resources from the other party?’.”

Prof. Hodgson said the social security system was about need. “When you determine need, then you’re looking at household circumstances,” she said.

“That’s why a lot of the means testing takes into account the number of children you have, because it says, ‘well, if you have more children then your costs are going to be higher than if you are just a couple without children’.”

A previous petition, presented to parliament in 2022, argued that partner income assessments could contribute to the difficulties those who experience financial abuse have in trying to leave a relationship.

“Partner income being used to affect an individual’s welfare status is dangerous,” it read. “It has been pointed out consistently by domestic violence (advocates) as a reason people are unable to escape from abuse.”

However, social services minister Amanda Rishworth supported the system, stating that social security payments are designed based on the assumption that couples pool their resources for mutual benefit.

“Couples generally share their expenses, such as various utilities including electricity, gas, internet and water,” she said.

“Accordingly, the income of each member of a couple is assessed for the purposes of the social security income test.”

The Department of Social Services has yet to provide a response to the latest petition.

What do you think of the partner income assessment? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

Also read: Centrelink Q&A: How will Centrelink assess my relationship status?

Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.


  1. The whole problem starts with CL’s belief that a couple live cheaper than two separate people. It is anti-marriage. Our neighbours recently married and took a hit on their pension. They are now debating why they bothered. Their reason was to bring their two families closer together, but they were doubly hit from an income perspective.

    • You don’t have to be married. You don’t even have to be in the same household, state or even country for Centrelink to deem you’re in a relationship and reduce your entitlement.
      Some couples are still married and living in the same house telling Centrelink they are separated. Centrelink will investigate and if they deem you’re separated then you both get a singles pension.

  2. In a case where one partner gets an overseas pension or earns money, both partners lose 50C on the dollar earned. This actually means they lose the lot. But CL hide behind complex processes, reviews that only favour CL and never own up to their own mistakes.

  3. The social services minister clearly doesn’t pay bills. She supports the faulty assumption that couples can live as cheaply as an individual and can pool their resources for mutual benefit.

    A couple may share their expenses, but their utility bills such as electricity, gas, internet and water are usually double, so the assumption that a couple can live more cheaply than two single people, is unfounded and rubbish. This is like many CL assumptions, from previous times when it may have had some validity, but in our current world are total rubbish.

    Assessing the income of each member of a couple for the purposes of the social security income test is just a way of reducing government costs. If you really calculate the numbers, it is clear the assumptions do not stack up. But then the whole pension model is based on bad assumptions.

    A classic example of this is the assumption that retirees had access to superannuation when they retired. For many current retirees, compulsory super was not in effect long enough for them to have super balances and many were working in average jobs where super did not exist. But so much about retirement still talks about what people should have in super, ignoring that unless you are a person looking to retire, the chances are you have had no opportunity to build any retirement funds beyond basic savings.

    • Another issue with the assumption that retirees will have Superannuation is the prevalence of casual employment. So many people have worked in casual, minimum wage, jobs where the payment of Superannuation is only required once a certain income is earned. Where people have worked in a number of casual positions, they might not reach that amount with any of their employers, but overall they do. I think that I heard something about this being addressed under the new Federal Government. But for those who have been employed in this way for the decades, it’s no consolation.

  4. I agree. The system unfairly disadvantages some. I also take exception to the way the Pension Bonus Scheme works. It is inconsistent. My wife has been unable to work since 2015 and received a small TPD payout from her work superannuation. So, she is unable to work to be able to use her Pension Bonus, and has the maximum amount accumulated which she will never be able to use. However, I have had to continue to work, but whatever I earn affects both our part pensions. The Pension Bonus Scheme should be pooled, so that both those in relationships can use it.

  5. Treating welfare recipients differently based on whether they’re single or in a relationship is wrong and humiliating. My spouse lost his job at 60 and because I’m still working he has never been entitled to any assistance, he is totally reliant on me and he feels humiliated. He has paid a lot of tax over his long working life, its just wrong.

    • So unfair. I am a big advocate for recipients to be treated as individuals. Restore their dignity, give them some worth and independence. Just because they are married, they have to rely on their partner. Have a son in law in late 30s, through no fault of his own has not been able to work for about 8 years. Cut out in the prime years of his life. No income, no contribution to super for later years. Increased medical bills, but because his partner works, he gets no financial support or health care card. They go without some of the important treatment due to increased costs. The working partners self esteem, self worth and health suffers. No incentives while they look after the disabled. They have worked, paid taxes and get no support. A couple with a disabled partner cannot live on one income. Like to see the politicians living on the income tested amounts of one partner on average wages.
      Disabilities recognized through NDIS, but not medical expenses.

  6. There should be no such thing as being assessed as a couple. Everyone who qualifies should not have their pensions decreased because of being in a relationship. This includes the 2 tier pension for couples as well as the above scenario. It’s discriminatory, belittling, demeaning and disrespectful.
    Centrelink can’t even tell you what they class as a relationship it’s so broad. You don’t even have to be living in the same state or country never mind the same house for centrelink to class you as being in a relationship so they can cut your entitlement. And when they deem you’re in a relationship they then want to know every detail of income, assets and private details etc of the other party.
    Centrelinks main objective is to pay recipients as little as possible.

  7. I gave up work to care for my mother and would do it again but to me it’s not a carers pension it’s employment and it 24/7 for me anyway, I believe we should be entitled to superannuation and not means tested , I could work the 25 hours allowed by Centrelink but why they take 50 cents in the dollar after $190 it’s just not worth it

    • My loving wife is considerabley younger than me and because of this we have to struggle at recieving the couples pension instead of single which is about $200 less so how could this be a fair situation for a worker of 41 years paying tax

      • I agree with the fact that this can lead to abuse and controlling within families. I am over 70 years and cannot do much as I had to retire due to medical problems. I have not worked since 2014 and has to rely on my wife for upkeep as my supper went into paying mortgage and other bills when I retired. I have been denied pension because my wife earns just above the threshold for couples. Even though I was granted the pension card two months ago with no payments, Centrelink is threatening to cancel the card as my wife’s income has not changed for 6 weeks. How fair is this when you have paid taxes for over 30 years and you cannot receive any benefit when the unemployed are even given payment increases.

  8. The ‘couple’ rule is ridiculous. Basically, as far as Centrelink is concerned if you have intimate relations for one night that makes you a couple. Even if you live in separate homes but spend nights together, you can be considered a couple.

    BUT, if you live in a shared house with 5 friends, with the obvious intention being that you share costs, your benefits, Jobseeker, Pension, whatever, is not affected at all. It’s all about the intimate relationship. True that spouses who have separated can live in the same house and they are assessed as individuals, and so it should be. Not everyone can afford an additional home when they are no longer a couple, let alone the issues with sharing care of their children. We’ve always got to remember that the people who make these rules are not the ones in need of financial support.

    These days I imagine it would be difficult to assess with the RBA Governor stating that the way to solve the housing problem is for more people to live in each household. Maybe he should let Centrelink know that he’s given that advice.

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