25 hours for $20

What is 'working for the dole' really like for participants? Matthew Stoff (@TheDescenters) recently spent some time engaging with 'jobactive' system, and shares his perspective here on 'workfare' and its potentially punitive effects. This article was originally published in Overland.


I recently attended the initial appointment with a jobactive provider in Melbourne, the first stage of the federal government’s recently revived Work for the Dole program. As a jobseeker under thirty who took over six months to find employment after graduation, I am well within the demographic for inclusion in the highest level of the program: being asked to work 25 hours a week in retail or community service for only $40 extra every fortnight.

I live in inner south-east Melbourne. Every job on the list I was provided required morning starts in the outer west. I do not own a car. To get to these positions from where I’m currently living, I would have had to have taken multiple forms of public transport and travelled for at least an hour each way. The cost of doing this for even a handful of days every week would almost exceed the $20 I’d be given, compounding the financial stress of unemployment even in metropolitan Melbourne: one of the few cities in Australia that actually offers public transport concessions to the unemployed.

I hold an Honours degree in Creative Writing and have a bit of paid experience in retail. The jobs on the list I was given were either irrelevant to my pre-existing training and experience, or superseded by the experience I already have. While some jobseekers might benefit from diversifying into other fields, I already have experience in retail. And if the experience I have is not enough to help me find a paying job, how could branching into a new field where I am even less competitive help me change my situation? The benefits of the program are very small, while the cost of attendance is enormous, and the $40 the government is offering will not help me to improve my situation. From my perspective, Work for the Dole is nothing but a negative, and I’m far from alone in making that assumption.

Thankfully, I was recently offered a job, and am days away from cutting my ties with the welfare system altogether. I work a 20-hour week in retail within an easy distance of my flat. My job is often very physical, but I have more than enough money for food or coffee between my shifts if I’m exhausted, a luxury denied to someone earning just enough to get to work, especially if their expenses far exceed the money they’re earning. This is already a grim reality for many Newstart recipients, over 40 per cent of whom are already suffering from varied forms of financial deprivation. The difference between us, after tax, is little over $100 a fortnight. This figure is close to the $50 a week that the Greens and other organisations  have suggested as a way to bridge the poverty gap between Newstart recipients and the rest of Australia. Because of this $100, I am free to save a small amount of money every week, pay my bills, even go out on occasion: things that were very difficult if not impossible for me when living on a Newstart allowance. So why do welfare recipients working five hours more than me per week receive so little by comparison?

In its current form, far from helping the unemployed remove themselves from welfare, Work for the Dole and related programs actually cause participants to spend a longer time collecting benefits, owing to a combination of a reduction in the hours available to search for paying work, and what Jeff Borland of the University of Melbourne calls the ‘scarring effect’ created by the program:

Unemployed who have done Work for the Dole however never completely caught up to others in the likelihood of moving off welfare payments. One possibility to explain this absence of catch-up is that there is a permanent ‘scarring’ effect on Work for the Dole participants. This might be due to behavioural changes in payment recipients as a result of doing Work for Dole, or to employers stigmatising Work for the Dole participants.

While an increase to the amount of welfare paid to job seekers undertaking Work for the Dole would not change this, it would certainly help alleviate the currently crippling poverty already suffered by Newstart recipients, many of whom are already struggling to meet their basic needs. This situation is only be exacerbated by the additional stress and pressure of being forced to attend regular hours in unwaged occupation. Judith Sloan, the economics editor for The Australiansuggests that this is half the point, and that this workfare can be used as a mechanism to encourage those who are unemployed but capable of working to remove themselves from the welfare system to escape it. But even the Assistant Minister for Employment Luke Hartsuyker has admitted that people turning down jobs represent a very small minority of unemployed Australians. So why do we allow them to determine our approach to welfare policy?

While Hartsuyker claims the program isn’t entirely punitive in nature, by offering unemployed participants skills they might be lacking, such as dressing well, or showing up for work on time, these are hardly the only barriers standing between jobseekers and sustainable employment. The long-term unemployed are often under-educated or suffering from mental illness, and won’t be helped by short-term volunteer positions. The rates of long-term unemployment are the highest that they’ve been in sixteen years, with over 700,000 people competing for little over 150,000 vacancies, while many unskilled jobs are disappearing. Over 25% of Newstart recipients have a disability, including many who would traditionally have been eligible for the DSP. Even the low rate of the Newstart payment itself has been identified as a barrier for the long-term unemployed, barring welfare recipients from proper access to food, clothing, housing, even medical care. Bringing jobseekers on Work for the Dole closer to the poverty line will not completely solve these problems, but it would be a step in the right direction, mitigating some of the disadvantages of long-term unemployment and empowering jobseekers to make a difference in their lives.

A better solution would be to increase the Newstart allowance for everyone and terminate Work for the Dole altogether. But if the government truly believes that Work for the dole is beneficial to the unemployed, the least they can do is remove some of the financial burden that makes it detrimental. It would only take $100 extra every fortnight: a miniscule amount which could be provided by the government, or the organisations taking on the extra workers. It would help the unemployed to cover their expenses while they’re volunteering, boosting their quality of life and incentivising their participation in the program, while giving them a small degree of financial independence – a taste of the freedom they’ll discover when they’re working, which could empower them to move away from welfare towards more permanent employment in the future.

The unemployed have enough problems. It’s time to end our punitive approach to welfare policy, and move on to more productive ways of handling the issue.

Matthew Stoff is a 27 year old writer, critic, and independent musician from Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter: @TheDescenters. This article was originally published in Overland.