The federal government has been forced to defend its superannuation early access scheme amid claims that up to 100,000 people, including many young workers, have completely drained their retirement savings to meet living costs.
Superannuation funds estimate that between 70,000 and 100,000 people have emptied their super accounts, many of them 35 years or younger, in what some have condemned as a "tragedy waiting to happen".
Australian Taxation Office figures show that of the 1.37 million people who accessed $11.1 billion of retirement savings in the scheme's first three weeks, more than half were younger than 35 years, including almost 169,000 21 to 25-year-olds, 263,900 in their late 20s and 244,400 in their early 30s.
Demand for financial support has not slackened, and as the program enters its sixth week of operation around 1.7 million have claimed more than $13.2 billion.
Industry Super Australia Chief Executive Bernie Dean said industry funds had paid out around $8 billion but warned that early access to super came with a "hefty price tag".
The peak industry superannuation organisation has estimated that the nest egg of a 30-year-old who withdraws $10,000 now will be $41,000 smaller by the time they retire.
"We've seen up to 100,000 people drain their savings to zero," Mr Dean said. "This is not a cause for celebration - it's a tragedy waiting to happen. These kids are going to have less savings later on."
His concerns were echoed by Melbourne Institute researcher Antonia Settle, who said the government was forcing people to provide their own safety net.
Dr Settle said using superannuation as a cushion for economic shocks would reduce retirement income, "add[ing] to the risky future that lies ahead of many workers".
Labor's assistant treasurer spokesman Stephen Jones said the fact that so many were being forced to draw down on their super highlighted the inadequacy of government measures.
"Four hundred and fifty thousand young Australians ...have probably drained their superannuation account and the reason they've done it is because the government didn't put enough support in place and didn't deliver that support early enough," Mr Jones said. "This means we're robbing from future generations."
Ben Phillips, Director, of ANU's Centre for Economic Policy Research, said early super access could be the only lifeline for those who have "fallen through the cracks" of the JobKeeper and JobSeeker schemes.
But Assistant Minister for Superannuation Senator Jane Hume said that being able to access super early was "a much better option than increasing credit limits or seeking funds through the likes of payday lenders".
Senator Hume said younger people had longer in the workforce to make up for the funds withdrawn during the COVID-19 emergency and could make "catch-up contributions to top up their super when times are good again".
Associate Professor Phillips said it was preferable if people were able to leave their super accounts alone but the amounts withdrawn under the scheme were a fraction of the overall pool of funds and "it's unlikely to make a material difference to superannuation retirement for most people".
"If around $10,000 is a large share of your superannuation balance you are either still some time away from retirement or, if near retirement, in reality you will be almost entirely dependent on the age pension and potentially receive a larger age pension for having spent the $10,000," he said.
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