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Rethinking the role of charity in a cost-of-living crisis

13 July 2023

Life Course Centre researchers have partnered with Queensland’s two largest charities to establish a direct link between levels of government income support and people’s need for charity.

The study calls for sustained increases in government income support payments, made directly to people in need to cover essentials such as food, clothing and rent, as a fairer, transparent, and efficient mechanism to promote self-determination and control over one’s life.

Evidence from the Pandemic

Using the ‘natural experiment’ of COVID-19 to show how temporary rises in income support directly reduced reliance on charity, the study findings now hold extra weight given Australia’s current cost-of-living crisis and surging demand for charity, including food banks, to meet basic needs.

Led by Life Course Centre researchers at the University of Queensland School of Social Science, the research was done in collaboration with the UQ Business School and Queensland’s two largest charity organisations, St Vincent de Paul and The Salvation Army.

Lead author Dr Christine Ablaza said the study investigated the link between the number of requests for assistance made to St Vincent de Paul and The Salvation Army in Queensland and the series of additional COVID-19 income support payments made by the Australian Government in 2020 and 2021.

“By analysing the timing and varying amounts of these payments, we established a direct association between the level of government income support provided and people’s demand for charity,” Dr Ablaza said.

“Our findings showed that demand for charity assistance dropped markedly over the period covered by the additional COVID-19 income support payments, compared to pre-pandemic levels.”

Blue dots represent the estimated reductions in the demand for charity at each rate of the Coronavirus Supplement. Lines connecting each of the point estimates were added to visualize the predicted reduction in assistance records per additional dollar of the Supplement. 

“Importantly, it was the sustained nature of the payments that really made a difference to people’s need for charity. While the fortnightly Coronavirus Supplements unequivocally reduced demand for charity, there was little evidence that the one-off lumpsum payments made a difference.”

The different roles of charity and government support

Co-author and Life Course Centre Chief Investigator Professor Cameron Parsell said the study findings demonstrate that government does have the power to directly reduce the need for charity and indirectly, levels of poverty. He said the study also challenges the role of institutionalised charity in fully meeting the needs of those in poverty.

“Our research suggests that charities have a more productive role to play in society through contributing to local communities, building solidarity and continuing to advocate for structural reform to address the determinants of poverty,” Professor Parsell said.

“For people who use charity to survive, increasing income support eliminates barriers to obtaining essential goods and services, including the stress, shame and stigma associated with presenting to charity. It also maximises their ability to exercise agency and live with dignity.”

Professor Parsell said sustained increases in income support payments would enable governments to move from providing ‘band-aid’ solutions to poverty, and re-direct efforts to tackle its structural root causes, rather than just addressing its symptoms.

“The capacity that would be freed up by increasing levels of government income support would also allow charities to offer better assistance to other vulnerable groups, such as refugees, who may fall through the cracks of the welfare system.”

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Citation: Ablaza C, Perales F, Parsell C, Middlebrook N, Robinson RNS, Kuskoff E, et al. (2023) Increases in income-support payments reduce the demand for charity: A difference-in-difference analysis of charitable-assistance data from Australia over the COVID-19 pandemic. PLoS ONE 18(7): e0287533. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0287533