Tags: What is Real Wellbeing? COVID19 Wellbeing Index Standard of living

“We know that having enough money is one of the absolute key things that drives our personal wellbeing.”—Dr Kate Lycett, School of Psychology, Deakin University.

Key points

  • The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index shows that groups who typically have low wellbeing scores—including the unemployed, people with low incomes and people who live only with children—had markedly higher wellbeing scores in 2020 than in 2019.
  • People with household incomes under $60,000 or were unemployed had notably higher wellbeing scores in 2020 than in 2019, but this dropped back down again in 2021.
  • One reason for the increase in wellbeing in 2020 might be increased government payments, which provided additional financial support for marginalised groups.

At first glance, one of the headline findings from latest Australian Unity Wellbeing Index research seemed totally baffling. From the mind-numbing grind of lockdown to the challenges of homeschooling, no-one escaped the trials of COVID-19. 

Yet somehow our wellbeing barely dipped over the course of the pandemic, with Australians maintaining the same remarkably stable levels of personal wellbeing that we’ve enjoyed for more than two decades. 

But while our personal wellbeing is undoubtedly resilient, it can still be derailed if we are deprived of three key things. Over the years, the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index—a 20-year study into the wellbeing of Australians, created in partnership with Deakin University—has found that finances, relationships and a sense of purpose play a particularly important role in supporting our wellbeing. There’s even a name for it: the golden triangle of happiness. 

So how did the pandemic affect marginalised groups, who may struggle with these key elements? 

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Exposing society’s fault lines

“Social commentators have said the pandemic exposed the fault lines in our society, where the effects of the pandemic were not evenly distributed across the population,” notes lead researcher Dr Kate Lycett from Deakin University’s School of Psychology . 

The latest Australian Unity Wellbeing Index results show that the pandemic had a significant effect on Australia’s most marginalised, but not in the way you might expect. At first, groups who typically post low wellbeing scores—people on household incomes under $60,000, people who live only with children (i.e. single parents) and unemployed people—all recorded markedly higher ones in 2020 than in 2019.  

How can we explain this initial wellbeing hike? Unemployed people, for example, reported considerably better wellbeing scores in 2020, notching results that were nine points higher than 2019 . Kate offers a couple of explanations for this. Firstly, she says, the identity and composition of that unemployed group changed due to the large number of pandemic-related job losses. “More people became unemployed, so that became a different kind of cohort,” she continues. 

But the second reason could be the clincher when it comes to the wellbeing of Australia’s most marginalised: in 2020, the government doubled the JobSeeker payment from $550 to $1,100 a fortnight. “One of the main reasons we think this uplift occurred is probably due to all the government supports that were in place,” says Kate.

Mother looking at laptop with child

“We know that some of those groups went from government subsidies of $550 a fortnight to suddenly having their financial support doubled overnight. And we also know that having enough money is one of the absolute key things that drives our personal wellbeing.”

This increased financial support would make a profound difference to the lives of people struggling to pay for life’s necessities, like food and rent. Yet this positive uplift suddenly changed in the second year of the pandemic. 

In 2021, the JobSeeker payment was almost halved again to about $620 a fortnight. Wellbeing for people on household incomes under $60,000 dropped during this period, with the wellbeing of unemployed people tumbling to an even lower level than in 2019. Kate points out that this is consistent with the economic theory of loss aversion, with people feeling income losses more acutely than gains.

Prioritising financial aid for wellbeing

The impact of these financial cutbacks makes sense to Jessica Stott based on her experience as a Service Delivery Manager helping marginalised people at the Women's Information and Referral Exchange (WIRE). An Australian Unity community partner, WIRE provides support, information and referrals on any issue to women, non-binary and gender diverse people in Victoria. At WIRE, Jessica noticed the JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments had an immediate benefit on wellbeing. 

“That support brought people up from not really being able to afford rent and not really having enough money to live on to having the financial baseline upon which they could build other things in their life that promote wellbeing,” she says.

Person filling in a form

As she points out, when it comes to the hierarchy of needs for Australia’s most marginalised, financial support is usually the most urgent priority. Significantly, however, extra money doesn’t give the same boost to other demographic groups. 

The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index found that when household income increased during the pandemic for people who were not classified as marginalised, their wellbeing levels were identical to those whose income remained the same. In other words, the cash boost made a negligible impact. 

For Kate, it’s a finding that has real-life policy implications when it comes to prioritising financial aid. Extra support can be life-changing for marginalised groups, she says, but is far less meaningful for others. 

“From our data, it does look like if you increase the incomes of people who are very marginalised and who have low incomes then that can make a huge difference to their wellbeing.” 

Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest. Interviewee titles and employer are cited as at the time of interview and may have changed since publication.

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