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'Facing years of debt': what it's like being in the middle of a Centrelink stuff-up

3 January 2017
Shalailah Medhora
Triple J Hack

Imagine you get a letter from Centrelink saying you have an outstanding debt of more than half your yearly salary. Oh, and it's due in just over a fortnight.

Brisbane-based single mum Joy got a letter like that before Christmas. (Joy isn't her real name; she's asked Hack not to identify her as her debt is still outstanding.)

Joy receives, on average, about $540 a fortnight in Family Tax Benefits and a partial parental payment to help ease the cost of raising two small children on her own. She works three days a week and earns about $45,000 a year.

So it came as a rude shock in December when Centrelink told her she owed them over $24,000.

"I was really stressed and upset. I work in an open-plan office and was trying not to burst into tears," she told Hack.

"As a single parent, I don't have a safety net of a lot of savings.

[...]

Joy is one of the 169,000 people who have received a letter from Centrelink asking them to check if the info they provided to the organisation was correct.

All welfare recipients - including people who got student support payments - are subject to the new compliance measures.

Centrelink's new automated compliance system has raised red flags all over the place; discrepancies that critics of the system said would not occur if humans were checking welfare records.

The number of letters has ballooned from 20,000 a year to 20,000 a week.

For some people, the automated system assumed that the welfare they receive in a fortnight is the same across the year - without taking into account that some people work casually or only during certain periods.

[...]

Social Services Minister Christian Porter defended the automated system, telling Radio National it was getting the job done.