Australia Today

‘I Eat Late so I Don't Go to Bed Hungry’: Youth Allowance Punishes People for Going to Uni

Youth Allowance payments are so low they trap people in poverty at the beginning of their lives, while others avoid the burden of education entirely.
Screenshot 2023-05-03 at 10

Australia has long been described as “the lucky country”, an “opportunity society” and a land of prosperity with the promise of a better life for each generation. But that rhetoric has vanished from politicians’ speeches lately as it’s become universally clear the dreams that were sold to our parents have not stood the test of time. 


“You're told throughout all of primary school and all of high school that education is a great thing, that going to university is good for you, good for the rest of society, that you are doing the right thing,” student and Youth Allowance recipient Sam Thomas, 21, told VICE. 

“And yet you've got a system there that makes it deliberately difficult to do so.”

Following 15 years of free tertiary education in Australia from 1974-89, fees began to climb. So in 1998 the Howard Government introduced a single income support payment for young people, whether they wanted to go to university or work. The objective: to reduce disincentives to study. 

It was popular. By 2003, more than a third of the country’s university students received the regular Youth Allowance stipends.

But in 2023, stagnant Youth Allowance rates are so low relative to university fees and the basic cost of living that it’s doing the opposite — pushing people away from education by trapping those who pursue it in poverty at the start of their lives. 

A report by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), released in March, found the majority of welfare recipients lived below the poverty line. At the time, more than 200,000 young people were receiving the Youth Allowance for Students and Apprentices payments — a lower number than in 2003. 


At just $562.80 per fortnight for those living independently, recipients get $130 less than Jobseekers and almost half the age pension

“It's set there to be deliberately low, to try and punish [us] into finding a job,” Sam said. 

“I think it's especially appalling that that's put on students.

“It's a fact that a lot of people cannot study without income support. But the income support is too low so a lot of people just can't study.”

But what will happen to Australian society if its citizens can’t afford an education? 

Sam has lived on Youth Allowance for three years since they moved from Sydney’s outer west to Canberra for university. 

With a rent assistance supplement, Sam gets the maximum $667.60 a fortnight payment. To continue to receive the full rate, they must maintain a full-time study load, regularly update Centrelink on all sources of income — their own and their parents’ — and they need to support themselves like any other adult. 

Of Sam’s fortnightly packet, $400 goes to renting a room in a sharehouse, $60 goes to utilities and other bills, and they set $50 aside each fortnight for their car registration when it rolls around.


The $150 or so left for the fortnight goes towards food, petrol and healthcare. Nothing goes towards their mounting HECS debt, which is indexed annually in line with the Consumer Price Index.

“I've got to cut down on the food that I eat to actually pay my bills,” Sam said.

“Since I’m living in a sharehouse, I can’t just not pay the bills. In some ways, I'd love to have the option of being able to, like, cut the gas connection to save money.

“It's a matter of sacrificing everything else to get to the end of the fortnight.”

The first essential to go is healthcare.

“I can't really afford to see a GP or psychologist anymore, and there's not really anyone in Canberra who is happy to bulk bill me and also has a booking available,” Sam said.

Next is food. Sam eats two meals a day, which rarely feature fresh fruit, vegetables or meat, and relies on a free food outlet at their university and another cheap food bank for staples like oats, pasta, tinned beans and tomatoes. Bread is too expensive.

“I tend to eat late because then I don't need to go to bed hungry,” they said.

“It's really stressful, and it makes it much more difficult to study and it exacerbates the issues with anxiety and depression that I've been having for a long time.” 

By every government measure, adulthood for Australians comes at 18. But Youth Allowance recipients aren’t considered independent until age 22, all based on the flawed and dangerous assumption that parents can fill the gaps with pocket money. 


“They have all the responsibility of being an adult but they’re treated as if they’re financially dependent on another adult,” Antipoverty Centre spokeswoman, Kristin O’Connell, told VICE. 

Youth Allowance also assumes positive relationships between parents and children. The recipient must be in constant dialogue with their guardians until they turn 22 to obtain signatures for income statements, which leaves many young people vulnerable to violence.

“It disproportionately affects queers or trans people and folks who are disabled, who are often more likely to be in a household where they experience abusive parenting. Youth Allowance prevents people from being able to escape that situation,” O’Connell said.

“It’s a payment that exposes people to violence as well as trapping them in poverty.”

For Melbourne resident Ella Katz, 22 – whose parents’ income was above the threshold – she wasn’t eligible for Youth Allowance until she turned 22 and was automatically considered “independent” from her family. But by that point she only had two months left of her university degree.

“Even though I was living independently it was assumed I would be [receiving money from parents],” she told VICE.

“I wanted to move out and support myself, but I realised it was pretty much impossible to do while studying full-time.” 

Ella worked three casual jobs to pay her $830 monthly rent, plus bills. 

“I was so stressed about doing well at uni and I just couldn’t put the energy into studying,” she said.


“It was definitely taking a toll on my mental health. It was more the things I missed out on. I had no time to see my friends or family. There was no time to rest or do anything fun.”

When her Youth Allowance payments finally kicked in, even though it was only for two months, Ella said that buffer made everything easier.

“I cut down my shifts and it meant during exam time I could say I wasn’t available to work. 

“I would've crumbled if I didn't get that. I can’t imagine how some of my friends [who aren’t Australian citizens] do it.”

The Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union helps Jobseekers and Youth Allowance recipients navigate the system, and spokesperson Catherine Caine said it’s not uncommon for people who really want to study at university to be forced to drop out due to the financial burden of trying to live while their time is occupied by classes and assignments.

“You’re being set up to fail and struggle in ways that people who are comfortably living on money from their parents don’t,” Caine told VICE.

And even those who can just afford to complete their degrees do under immense emotional and physical strain at an age when their brains are still developing. That can have lifelong impacts.

“If you want to break the generational cycles of poverty by, say, doing a university degree, those tentacles are going to keep trying to drag you down,” Caine said.

“I would like Australia to have a future five, 10, 50 years from now, but starving the brains of the young people who will build that future is not the way to go.”


Data released in March based on the 2021 Census, which was held during COVID-19 lockdowns in Melbourne and Sydney, found more than one million people in New South Wales — or at least one in eight — lived below the “poverty line” at the time.

Since then, Australia has been stormed by a cost-of-living crisis that made those bedrock-low payments even less adequate. 

Inflation, natural disasters, global tensions and shit landlords have rattled the cost of practically everything, from lettuce to petrol to electricity to rent — which has gone up in Australia by as much as 25% in the last 12 months

“Even if you miraculously solved the housing crisis overnight,” said Caine, “and gave people free houses, people are still having to live on $500 a fortnight. How do you feed yourself, pay for internet, fuel your car and have some semblance of life?”

An analysis by Homelessness Australia, published in April, found that Youth Allowance recipients living in a shared two-bedroom apartment at the national median rental price are left with $13 a day to pay for everything else. 

“The reality is landlords will not rent to a young person whose budget is stretched this thinly, making it almost impossible for young people who can’t live safely at home to find somewhere to live,” CEO of Homelessness Australia, Kate Colvin, said.


“We urgently need to lift Youth Allowance and Commonwealth Rent Assistance so young people have the income they need to avoid homelessness. By failing to act, we are condemning growing numbers of young people to homelessness and poverty. It’s impossible to develop skills and experience or attain an education when you’re hungry or unsure of where you will sleep.”

With the Federal Budget coming next week, advocates are saying increasing income support payments is a smart move to help prevent future skills shortages.

“Treating young people like this means the community is harmed too,” Kristen O’Connell said.

“We’re not getting the skilled professionals that would allow us to have a more equitable society.

“We should see supporting people as an investment. It should be viewed as a positive and something we can be proud of.”

Once upon a time, being in your 20s in Australia meant possibility. 

Someone like Sam or Ella, coming to the end of their university degrees, should be hopeful for their future — thinking about what kind of job they’d like, where they’d like to live, perhaps moving into a rental by themselves or buying their first home one day.

VICE asked Sam how they plan for their future while living below the poverty on Youth Allowance amid the rising cost of living.

“I don't know. It's very, very uncertain,” they replied.

“It's just something that looks quite impossible.”

Aleksandra Bliszczyk is a Senior Reporter for VICE Australia. You can follow her on Instagram here, or on Twitter here