Here’s why older Australians need not be living in poverty

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With the economy slowing and incomes in many cases not even keeping up with inflation, people are doing it tough. And when things are tough, it’s always those at the bottom who are hardest hit.

Despite Australia recently being declared the country with the highest median wealth, we have a patchy record when it comes to rates of poverty. According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), among developed countries, Australia ranks 23rd out of 36 for the proportion of people living in poverty – placing us squarely in the bottom half.

Proportion of people living in poverty in developed countries

Source: OECD

And while that record for a country such as Australia isn’t great, it gets worse when we drill down to poverty in retirement. If we look at the same developed countries, but now just look at that part of the population over the age of 65 who are living in poverty, we slip from 23rd to 33rd out of the 36 countries. That puts us fourth from the bottom.

Proportion of people aged 65 and older living in poverty in developed countries

Source: OECD

So why is Australia failing to provide an adequate income for those in retirement? Is it because the Government isn’t spending enough?

The two main ways the Government helps fund retirement incomes is through the Age Pension and superannuation tax concessions. There are other ways, such as excess franking credits, but the Age Pension and super tax concessions are the biggest contributors.

Combined, they are worth almost $90 billion a year. But what is interesting is the way in which each is growing. Super tax concessions are growing more rapidly than spending on the Age Pension. The graph below shows spending on the Age Pension and super tax concessions as well as projections out to 2021-22. While spending on the Age Pension is larger than super tax concessions, the gap is closing. It won’t be much longer before super tax concessions are bigger than spending on the Age Pension.

Spending and projections for the Age Pension and superannuation tax concessions

The $90 billion per annum expenditure on the Age Pension and super tax concessions is enormous, yet it doesn’t include excess franking credits, the seniors and pensioners tax offset (SAPTO) and other perks.

So why do we have such high rates of poverty in retirement?

The answer is how we’re spending the money. While the Age Pension is reasonably targeted, many other parts of the retirement income system are not. Super tax concessions, one of the fastest growing areas of retirement incomes, overwhelmingly go to those who are unlikely to need help in retirement.

Because of the way super tax concessions are structured, the more you earn the bigger your proportion of concessions. This leads to a situation where 60 per cent of super tax concessions go to the top 20 per cent of income earners with only 11 per cent going to the bottom half.

Excess franking credits are much worse. Looking at households according to wealth, a staggering 90 per cent of excess franking credits go to the wealthiest 10 per cent of households and almost nothing goes to the bottom 70 per cent.

The reason that poverty can exist at the same time as substantial retirement income support is that so much of it is going to those who are never likely to be in poverty.

The solution is to shake up how we hand out government support for retirement incomes with a focus on reducing poverty in retirement and simplifying the whole system. We can do that with a Universal Age Pension.

Super tax concessions are large. They’re expected to be more than $50 billion a year by 2022. If we get rid of all super tax concessions, money is freed up to increase the rate of the Age Pension and make it universal. A universal pension means it is paid to anyone of retirement age, regardless of income or assets.

This will make the whole system much simpler. No more income and asset tests. No more worrying about the impact that working a few hours a week will have on your pension payments. In turn, this reduces administration costs for both retirees and the Government.

Research by The Australia Institute shows the pension amount can also be increased – from 30 per cent to 37.5 per cent of male total average weekly earnings. The base rate for the single pension would be increased from $850 to $1107 per fortnight. The partnered rate would see an equivalent increase.

The Superannuation Guarantee, which is the 9.5 per cent compulsory super contributions, would continue. But super would be an extra on top of the Universal Age Pension. If you didn’t accumulate enough super through your lifetime, you would still be supported by an Age Pension that allowed you to live with dignity.

All of this would be funded through the removal of superannuation tax concessions. But due to the size of these concessions, there would still be around $15 billion to $20 billion per year left over.

This money could be put into a fund to help with another looming crisis – the increasing number of retirees renting with little to no savings. Retirees who rent are at great risk of poverty. With falling rates of housing affordability, the number of people renting in retirement is expected to increase – to 50 per cent of retirees by 2050.

The $15 billion to $20 billion per year could fund a substantial increase in public housing for retirees. This would make a big difference to rates of poverty in retirement.

Australia spends enough today to dramatically decrease the number of retired people living in poverty. But at the moment we spend it in entirely the wrong way. A Universal Age Pension at a higher rate could allow many more Australians to live in retirement with dignity.

Do you support the concept of a Universal Age Pension? Would it make your life easier and more comfortable?

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Written by Matt Grudnoff

87 Comments

Total Comments: 87
  1. 0
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    The Universal Aged pension in NZ is quite low in comparison to the cost of living. I asked a NZ’er about this, and she said it is expected that they supplement their Universal AP with supperannuation. You cannot live on the aged pension it is $636 a fortnight in NZ. We would have a similar problem if people did not have enough $4 in their super to help support themselves.

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      Yes but people know the situation. Everyone gets a similar retirement from their taxes and can save outside without manipulation by funds, government concessions etc.

      The problem in Australia is the inequity created by the current system and the fact that too many are chasing falling yield and the risks are growing.

    • 0
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      Exactly right Leek! A universal pension is not the B all and end all. Those coming behind us need to plan for their retirement. You just cannot idle along in life and hope the government will be there to look after you. We can all see that is no longer the case.

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    I support the idea of a universal age pension to simplify the system. My suggestion is that the age pension is then taxed separately allowing for the net equity in the family home and the total amount in super. In this way those with valuable homes and large superannuation balances would in effect get no age pension. This is fair enough and would counter the opposition to giving extra to the wealthy. Those with valuable homes (and little else) can enter into an arrangement to not have their age pension reduced in return for the government receiving an appropriate amount on final sale of home. I would see the age pension in two parts; the base pension and the housing allowance for all. Those with homes would have the housing allowance progressively reduced if the value of the home less mortgage is above a certain threshold. The idea would be to increase the net amount of age pension for those with little assets and not increase it for those with sufficient assets. The rules for stopping people giving away assets to obtain age pension would need to be tightened. ie the period of 5 years where any gifts to family are counted should be extended significantly. Also the amount of super that can be taken as a lump sum on retirement should be limited.

    The intention is to give more to those that really need it.

    • 0
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      Hi Macheke, Hmm! With all the rules you suggest I can’t help but wonder if the system you put forward is any simpler than what we have now. In fact what you suggest seems to me to make the argument against a Universal Pension.

    • 0
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      Macheke, is your system penalising those who worked hard and saved for a house vs those who just spent up all their working life with nothing to show for it at the end?

    • 0
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      Indeed. Having landlords own the property would possibly work as it does in many countries. It would be foolish to spend too much money on a home under those rules so people could invest in productive enterprise and leave property supply to the professional landlord corporations.

      You would need to let current owners out of the arrangement though. Perhaps if they sold to one of the corporate landlords they could then be excused.

    • 0
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      Macheke. You obviously haven’t saved hard, gone without and bought a home. Totally disagree with your Suggestions. Goes against whole concept of universal Pension. No incentive to work hard.
      Check out how the UK does the universal pension. It’s fair. No one starves and if you work hard you get the benefits in retirement. No penalised . The way it should be.

    • 0
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      Life experience – you mentioned the UK pension system. People here do not seem to realise that in Europe the Universal Pension is only possible when people actually pay into a Govt fund and have no control of their money. Remember the UK? Every week I had stamps with my wages for the deductions the boss made on my behalf. At 65 years of age the universal pension kicks in. Should one not make it to 65 years of age one paid in all one’s working life for the people who live beyond 65. That is how the system was made sustainable (the pension income is added to all other investment and savings income and taxed accordingly).
      Looked at the scale as well and all these European countries in front of Australia have workers who pay in all their lives and get some money back after 65. I am one of them. These countries do not have pensions for folks who never worked as they have a welfare system for people who have never contributed. In this country only residence is counted, over there it is depending on your work participation.
      Only mistake I made in the 70s is to believe the International Social Security Agreement which said one gets the pension in the country where one lived at 65 and both countries pay the pension together. Australia changed its mind in the late 80s and brought in the income and assets test.

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      The UK system is a ‘Contributory’ Pension scheme. The clue is in the name. It doesnt, in theory anyway, come out of the big pot in the middle of the table. Its separate. The problem in Oz is that there are as many taking out as put in. Many have never contributed, ever in their lives, but expect the over taxed tax payer to fund welfare and pension. Its why the Government here have been calling the pension ‘Welfare’ as its just another spigot of the gravy train. The people who work hard, save, and pay their taxes all their lives are expected to keep paying for ever.

    • 0
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      Thanks geordie, you got the system worked out. Problem we had the Pommie system here as well and it was incorporated into consolidated into general taxes roughly 40 years ago and now we are welfare recipients, the same as all the other non workforce participants. What a stupid country have we become? Sponsoring sloth and spendthrifts. No wonder the pension system is in trouble and most of us are trying to game it.

    • 0
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      Many respondents here are ignoring the fact that many mothers have flogged their guts out all their lives to raise children & run households to keep families together, without being paid a cent & so therefore, not paying tax.

      I’m truly sick & tired of the current regime that deliberately divides people so we attack each other, with the belief that everyone who hasn’t paid tax is a bludger. There’s a happy medium there, where people who work hard are duly rewarded for their efforts without being over-penalised, & those who haven’t found paid work (for whatever reasons), are given enough to live a life with some dignity, so they don’t despair, become homeless or turn to crime.

      But our lazy govt has set the bar so people don’t look to our elected leaders for answers, it’s so much easier to blame someone else for them having to pay any tax at all (just like the mega rich). Especially come election day!

      Let’s face it – small government equals smaller services for everyone, & would prefer inadequate safety nets for the unfortunate.

  3. 0
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    the government has got to be made to stop running its own secret slave trade, paying family carers 3.50 an hour. living day to day is impossible on that , retirement ?/ forget it

    • 0
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      How does the government get away with underpaying when nobody else can?

    • 0
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      There is no slave trade in family carers. Carers are fortunate to live in a country where they receive a government allowance for what is essentially a voluntary activity and personal choice. Many provide care to frail and ill family without the benefit of a government handout. If carers do not have the means then they have other means of support available to them.

    • 0
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      Here you go again, Farside. Ignoring the fact that both poor & rich people will care for their loved ones, unconditionally. They WILL NOT put their loved one in an institution, when during their whole married lives they have promised each other they won’t do it.

      For those without financial back-up options, being a Carer 24-7 means you are being paid a slave’s wage.

    • 0
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      Hoohoo, nobody is forcing people to put loved ones in institutions but choosing to be a carer 24-7 is a voluntary and personal choice, along with the consequences that flow from that choice. Poverty may well be one of those consequences for those without savings but it is voluntary. This is what you ignore. The allowance is a welcome gesture to recognise the sacrifice but is no more deserving than other social security benefits.

    • 0
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      I replied to Farside yesterday, but it seems my polite post has disappeared or never arrived. Needless to say, I disagree vehemently.

      The Carer’s allowance is NOTHING like other social security benefits. Why? Because Caring saves the govt millions of dollars, if not billions. So what if it’s voluntary? I’m not ignoring that fact, as you claim. The allowance is a pittance compared to what it saves the govt.

  4. 0
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    No, probably not! I reckon spend down to the pension with a small emergency fund. Give more to the actually poor pensioners not the ones with more than the actual pension. Why so many get a pension who seem to be quite wealthy is odd in my opinion. Then there are others who cannot afford food or medicines. Spend first then the pension is given when money is almost exhausted. The pension should be sufficient to cover a decent lifestyle minus overseas travel and luxuries. A frugal person should be able to save something from the pension to alleviate any pressure when sickness or emergencies occur. I know many people will jump on this but the pension should not be a top up to people who already have much.
    I knew that about the franking credits and yet people continue to support it. Sad!

    • 0
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      If you are frugal with the pension, then you may be able to afford to travel overseas.

      I have a strict budget and don’t ‘waste’ my pension on alcohol, tobacco, gambling, nor eating out many times a week.

      If you took stock and changed your spending habits and saved what you’d be spending on the above items, then possibly within 3 – 4 years, you’d have enough to have a decent overseas holiday.

    • 0
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      Are you surmising I drink, gamble, smoke, etc? Eating out is also a waste of money. One restaurant meal could be as much as the week’s groceries. If you read all my posts you would know I do none of those things.
      There are pensioners who are not eating enough and who cannot afford their medicines. I am pretty sure they have no overseas holidays or any kinds of holidays.
      There are obviously pensioners and other pensioners.
      The other pensioners are those that need more help obviously.
      I do not know your circumstances or how you manage overseas holidays if you are on a single pension, please enlighten me?!

    • 0
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      Backpacking around Tasmania can be fun.

    • 0
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      Backpacking around Tasmania can be fun.

    • 0
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      In a safe investment like the bank term deposit you need $3.3 million dollars to provide the same as the couple’s aged pension.

      Without security, franking credits or rental property Keating’s privatised retirement system collapses.

      As the current market cycle moves on we could see decades of saved capital corrected from the current overpriced values.

      It was a bit odd to privatise retirement incomes without some sort of back up plan or investment with suitable risks.

      Hindsight is a brilliant thing. The idea of a universal pension and tax on other investment returns makes sense.

      Perhaps income management for those unable to afford what most can might be the solution rather than punishing those who can and do manage to pay for lifestyle and save for the future. The so called “wealthy”.

      Public housing might help those who have to rent as it must be very hard although my very ill father did rent and still afforded a good lifestyle, medicines and saved on the pension. He paid his bills put 10% away and lived on the rest each fortnight.

    • 0
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      ask people that have experienced Newstart and they will tell you living comfortably on the pension is a doddle. Like Rae’s father, my father is able to meet all his needs, has weekly outings, and still has a surplus at the end of each fortnight. He could easily afford an overseas trip if travel was still a practical option for him. I know one retired couple not yet eligible for the age pension excitedly planning their trip to Bali as soon as the pension pay rise comes through.

    • 0
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      I would definitley be better off with a Universal Pension and all that comes with it.

  5. 0
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    The gap will always be greater under a Liberal Government just look at the last six years.

  6. 0
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    If the funds – $15 – 20 million were used to provide those of us who rent decent 2 bedroom units with storage and at least carport provisions, then I’d be all for that, but the NSW government expect us to live in 1 bedroom units with no storage or undercover parking, which they ‘think’ is adequate for us. I’d go ‘around the bend’ living in such a small space.

    The retirees that live in the current ‘home owner’ villages have at least 1 and a half bedrooms, if not 2 or 3! Which makes the offers from the state governments a very paltry one indeed.

    • 0
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      SuziJ, I am with you. My sister downsized again and is not happy. We are home most of the time now and could not survive in a constricted space. Downsizing also does not work money wise. Some tiny places are as expensive as a big home win space and room for the family. If bought away from the cities a few years back they are neither flash nor huge just comfortable. You need a place for the family too when they hit hard times.

    • 0
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      maintaining “a place for the family too when they hit hard times” is a social insurance policy that comes under the category of luxury or nice to have.

    • 0
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      It’s how decent people think, Farside. They won’t abandon their families & they are entitled to having some space in their homes for friends & family to stay, if desired or needed. How about at Christmas?

      Or do you think the Gestapo should come around & charge Paddington with greedy or luxurious thinking? You sound like a heartless bastard, F.

    • 0
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      No Hoohoo, I think it is a ridiculous proposition that parents should be expected to maintain additional places in the off chance their children’s families may need crisis accommodation some time in the future. Nice for those that can afford such generosity but not obligatory to strive for a spare home or granny flat or virtual rooming house. A spare room for visitors is something entirely different. Some parents might choose to maintain a much larger home to suit potential family crises, or indeed greed or luxury, however it is a personal choice. A free tip: it’s expensive keeping a holiday home or extra accommodation just for overflow at Christmas time.

      In answer to your question, no, I don’t think the Gestapo should come around & charge Paddington with greedy or luxurious thinking. Do you think this is a job for the Gestapo?

    • 0
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      I am not proposing that parents be expected to maintain a home for their offspring forever & a day, but they might choose to because they’re concerned about their child’s mental health, disability or other health issues. Or their grandchildren’s welfare.

      Some people have no choice in the matter – they just can’t unload a dependent child/adult. Would you abandon your child/adult if it meant they became homeless?

      I’d like to have a spare room (I don’t) for friends & family to visit.

      Western democracies seem to be lead by leaders who are shifting us so far to the right that we seem to becoming like the Third Reich, so of course we’ll never call their henchmen the Gestapo, but other milder sounding titles. Who shall we call those who deny our Right To Know, who censor Freedom of Information documents so they are blank, who raid journalist’s who are seeking to expose the truth? Who are these henchmen protecting, what are they hiding & where are they leading our countries?

    • 0
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      Hoohoo, maintaining space for dependants is something most adults would strive to do in accordance with their means and I’m not aware of anybody suggesting otherwise let alone unload or abandon them. It is a different matter if it is not within their means; in those circumstances then you would hope there is a generous social safety net for those needing genuine support and assistance to become more self-reliant.

    • 0
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      I’m glad to hear that, Farside.

      The fact remains that our economy relies on a huge army of unpaid workers, who often fall through the cracks, especially when they become middle-aged & older, especially women. They haven’t got much super because a big chunk of their work has gone unpaid. Or, if they’ve been retrenched & simply can’t find new employment, they can’t change their circumstances, & they can find themselves without the ability to scrape together enough cash for the Bond money & upfront rent. They live in their cars or couch-surf with various friends. I heard this story first-hand from a highly qualified woman in her early 60’s.

      The safety nets need to be larger & paid for by reining in middle-class welfare (negative gearing, Capital Gains Tax breaks & in some cases, Franking Credit refunds).

    • 0
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      You can get the bond money for a rental from the Department of housing, it is a loan without interest that is held in trust by the real estate agents, but you have to be lucky to be able to find affordable rental accommodation and that is the main problem. Going back to the 1990’s you could easily find an affordable rental property on the Newstart allowance, now it is simply impossible. Newstart has not increased for 20 years, but rent and cost of living has increased dramatically. Many women who have worked hard all their lives bringing up children deserve better, after all they brought up mostly tax payers. (Yes can be said for men who brought up children too) Now women choose to work because they want their own security and also it is the only way a couple can pay the mortgage, sadly this effects the many children who have tired parents who do not give them the attention they seek and that has a flow on effect.

    • 0
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      you wont get an argument from me Hoohoo when it comes to eliminating middle class welfare, rorts for the wealthy, cheating by safety net recipients etc

    • 0
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      You sound like a human being so often, Farside. But then you revert straight back to the language of the regime, dividing people so they go at each other, instead of challenge the regime. Here you seem to be suggesting that safety net recipients are somehow cheating, as if the rest of our society doesn’t cheat.
      But in every section of society there are cheats of sorts. Tax cheats or shall we simply call it good fiscal policy, only afforded by those with expensive accountants (doesn’t matter the cost – it’s a tax deduction, ironically). Anyway, we’re only beholden to our shareholders, not our country.
      There are those who cheat on their spouse.
      There are those who lie on a daily basis, just to keep the peace.
      There are those who pretend they are seeking election, but are simply bolstering up their power and business credentials. This type cheats democracy, Clive.
      So I ask, please stop dividing people. It’s our country & our society. I’m damned sick of this negativity. It’s un-Australian. Morrison has cornered himself with his own vitriol. Our country is crying out for real, proper leadership! Watch out for Dutton to jump up like a rock spider as soon as Morrison visibly starts floundering in the polls.
      The country is in the midst of the worst drought & the worst fire season breathing down our necks, but all these LNP fools have got is a bloody-minded Surplus. FFS! OMG what will Summer bring? People dying from smoke inhalation and towns with no water because the aquifer has been fracked.

  7. 0
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    That concept is something an LNP government would never countenance. The problems with the current system is down largely to them and Howard and Costello in particular.

  8. 0
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    That concept is something an LNP government would never countenance. The problems with the current system is down largely to them and Howard and Costello in particular.

  9. 0
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    Put the pension up say a $100 a week and all that money will flow back into the economy. Very few people on the pension actually are able to save so it has to go to buisness, which at this time is not going so well. Win, win situation. Keep it simple.

    • 0
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      Agree Snowflake on one condition: find a way for the extra $100 not to go to the pokies. My area is riddled with them and people just do not seem to manage what they have. Go every day in some club for a drink and I always see the same faces (oldies) coming out of the poker machine venues. They are separated out here so can actually enter them without going to the pub counter.
      Our problem is that the Commonwealth (Canberra Govt) pays the pension out and the State Govts make the profits out of gambling, so the States are not interested in curbing the abuse of those machines.

    • 0
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      Agree as long as the self funded who were forced to save for themselves get the $100 too.

      It’s pretty tough making income when the only safe place pays around 1% interest and you have to worry all the time about how your next quarter income will be generated.

    • 0
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      Yes Mariner Wyong Leagues Club takes $500 000 every day from mainly government aged pensioners and DSP recipients. It’s why they are talking about income control cards.

    • 0
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      Income control cards do not really work, Rae. Round here one would simply get the groceries from a mate’s card and give him the cash for the ciggies and the grog shop. Was the case with all the food hampers 50 years ago in Melbourne where the blokes came in with the charity groceries and flogged the lot off piece by piece for beer across the bar. Was a purchaser myself to my regret now but I was pretty young and green then and newly arrived.
      You can even pay power bills etc with the card. So a bloke pays my bill at the post office with his card, he’ll have $300 in his pocket to do with as he likes. That is the way it works in the communities with these unwanted cards.

    • 0
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      Let’s just ban pokies. They are soul-destroying & even life-destroying for some who become addicted.

      But the govt is addicted to the revenue, too, so that won’t happen. It’s such an easy income stream for the government – much easier than increasing income taxes.

    • 0
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      I agree HooHoo, Pokies should be banned, it is ruining many lives and sending so many people into a spiral of addiction and poverty, those spending all their savings, superannuation and other investments all end up on the pension longer. Trouble is they make the old fold feel wanted and welcome, offering free tea and bickie and a chat to so many lonely people, how they get sucked in.

    • 0
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      Don’t people have self control. Why should those who like the occassional flutter have to be penalised because of others lack of will power. We already have too much “nannying” in this country.

    • 0
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      Stupid argument, hyperbole. And with language straight out of the LNP handbook. If you really need “the occasional flutter” then simply have a bet with your friend – winner takes all. Stop paying these betting agency leeches & cut out the middle man. The odds are better! And your friend wins, not the TAB or online wolves. It’s win-win!

      Oh sorry State govts – you’ll have to get your mouth off the other teat. Talk about the Nanny State! We’re feeding them!

      So hyperbole, you’re already being penalised by definition, for being an unskilled gambler Have you put more in than what you got back? That’s their business plan & they are the winners, never the losers. Every type of fool soon loses their money, so don’t get too caught up worrying about those with will power weaker than yours.

  10. 0
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    Macl. This is somewhat complex to reduce the payments to those who don’t need them but I cannot see a real universal age pension being introduced paying pensions to the wealthy. The ATO already has most of the information needed to implement what I am suggesting. They only need to collect the value of homes from the councils and the mortgages from these providers using TFNs. E tax will do the rest. The ability to have equity release to increase income is already in the market. The government would be the provider offering attractive terms. The equity release is the more complex bit and it could be excluded and have the existing loans and private sector schemes provide the services.

    The existing system is much more complex with income and assets tests taking excessive time by people at Centrelink and the public. It is also unfair to renters and the real needy and gives money to some who don’t need it due to the exclusion of the family home. This should be fixed first and foremost. If the system cannot be totally simple like a universal age pension so be it.

    • 0
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      Maybe would work if all those who refuse to purchase a home would be required to pay higher taxes throughout their working life to compensate for the sacrifices home purchasers have to make to achieve a roof over their heads. You look as if you want to reward the wastrels in our society.

    • 0
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      People like to raise families in a stable home – renting just doesn’t cut it for most people, even those without children. Or their idea of a home as a sanctuary includes planting a beautiful garden.

      People desire control over their lives, so renting isn’t an option because our laws allow for good tenants to be kicked out without very much notice. You might be forced to move into a house you don’t like because there are limited rental options available in that window of time when you have to move out.

      I am lucky to own my own home but I object to those less fortunate being referred to as “wastrels”, Mariner. The world is not black & white, did you know?

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