‘Compliance’ welfare a road to destruction

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The Federal Coalition Government has introduced a range of cuts to welfare payments, and accompanying this there has been an increasing focus on compliance. Compliance requirements are often onerous and unrealistic for people receiving welfare, and in addition seem designed to strip recipients of their dignity and agency. In today’s post Policy Whisperer Susan Maury (@SusanMaury) from Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand briefly reviews some of the compliance initiatives, suggests possible world views that are driving these changes, and provides a brief review of the consequences. Note: Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand is part of the newly-formed Treating Families Fairly campaign, organised by the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare.

Welfare reform increases compliance requirements

With the release of the Community Affairs Legislation Committee’s report on the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill (welfare reform), once again the question must be asked: What are the outcomes that the government is looking to achieve through the continual erosion of the social security system? And will the means being employed achieve those ends?

The stated aims of welfare reform are three-fold: to make the welfare system “simpler, more sustainable, and focussed on supporting people from welfare into employment” (p. 9).

The means by which they intend to do so – as contained in the Australian Parliament’s summary of the main changes to the bill – have a particular focus on increasing compliance requirements.

Many of these changes seem dangerously close to infringing on basic human rights, such as breaching women and children’s right to social security (as detailed in our submission), allowing required information to be used against a recipient in the case of an investigation or court case, and the much-critiqued drug testing provisions.  Additionally, the language used is telling: The existing NewStart Allowance and another six social security payments will be replaced by a single Job Seeker Payment. The not-so-subtle messaging through this change is: regardless of your circumstances, you are expected to get a job and get off welfare support.

Concurrent to the welfare reform proposals from the Coalition, there have been an expansion of the cashless welfare card, despite lack of evidence that there are positive outcomes to communities and concerns that it is harmful, even according to the government’s own assessments, while infringing on human rights – an issue that has been repeatedly highlighted. It appears there may be other forces besides positive outcomes that are pushing the cashless welfare card.

Another Coalition project is expanding the ParentsNext trial. This involves requiring parents of children as young as six months old to skill up in order to enter employment, with “approximately 96 per cent of… participants expected to be women” (ParentsNext Discussion Paper, page 8). The language use targeting young mothers implies, once again, that they are a drain on government resources and also undervalues the role and importance on parenting.

Despite the apparent push to stigmatise and penalise people who depend on welfare payments to make ends meet, ABS data indicates that welfare payments have declined sharply in real terms – even while inequality increases. The latest data indicates that those in the lowest quintile currently hold less than one per cent of Australia’s wealth, while the highest quintile holds 63 per cent.  

Welfare conditionality: Causes and Consequences

If there is a lack of evidence behind these initiatives, where are they coming from? I had a ‘go’ at mapping the causes and consequences (see image below). While it is undoubtedly far from complete it’s worth attempting to understand the impetus behind these reforms. I briefly explore 4 possible causes below; I will cover the “consequences” side of the equation at a later time.

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1.       A singular, economic view of community life. In this framework, the value of a human being is synonymous with their ability to contribute to the economy. For those who have potential barriers to regular employment – which may include caring responsibilities, disability, poor physical or mental health, living in a remote location, lack of cultural or language capabilities, and/or age (very young or very old) – other social contributions are downgraded when not sustaining our (unsustainable) economy. It’s important to remember that market economics is itself an ideology, and there are other frameworks for thinking about the economy which may be more viable (for example, Kate Raworth’s Donut Economics, which ‘reminds us that we are more than just workers and consumers’; or ecological economics, which acknowledges that the Earth has finite resources and proposes a de-growth strategy). Neoliberalism isn’t working for most people.

2.       Individuating problems and ignoring system break-down. There is a history of what could be described as victim-blaming in Australia. John Falzon has recently written about John Howard’s use of the phrase ‘zones of chaos’ which ensured that “individuals, homes and communities are blamed for their own alleged pathology or criminality.” Just a few examples from the current government: Punishing unemployed youth when there are a documented lack of jobs available (while simultaneously scaling back supports such as the TAFE system and affordable housing); removing agency from Indigenous communities while sidelining more complex, holistic and costly restorative practice; increasing incarceration rates for women while failing to address issues of debt and trauma on offending.

3.       Lack of proper response to related issues. By blaming individuals rather than the system, responses are then targeted at individuals, rather than the system. This leads to further marginalisation of vulnerable people while failing to provide responses that are evidence-based. For example, links between unstable housing and reduced outcomes for children and adults alike are well documented, yet continued cuts to Centrelink benefits have directly led to wide-spread evictions.

4.       Vilification of vulnerable people and welfare users.  Behind pushes to increase welfare conditionality is a narrative of the ‘underserving poor.’ There are almost daily newspaper stories on ‘dole bludgers’ and people who knock back jobs to remain on “generous taxpayer-funded welfare payments” – estimated by Social Services Minister Christian Porter at 100,000 people, for which the “taxpayer works for 14 years to pay welfare bill of just one dole bludger.” The research does not support this narrative, but it does justify the government’s choices, while further marginalising the most vulnerable.

Such tactics as reducing payments so that people are living below the poverty line, coupled with increasingly punitive approaches, appears to be a deliberate way to move people off of the welfare rolls at any cost. While these policies may be effective in moving people off of welfare, they are unlikely to result in an actual reduction of poverty levels or a proportionate increase in workforce participation. This means government costs increase significantly, as protective costs are displaced to crisis responses – always more expensive – in other portfolios. For example, when single mothers are forced into work when their youngest turns six, they are most often required to work in flexible, insecure, and low-paying jobs without a viable career pathway. Over time this leads to entrenched poverty; older women are now the demographic most likely to experience homelessness for this reason.

Poverty reduction more effective

Recent analysis indicates that the increasingly punitive nature of welfare has not increased employment for single parents, but is pushing them and their children into poverty. The US experience of welfare reform, which in some ways served as the template for changes in the Australian system, is instructive here. For example, extreme poverty has risen in part due to welfare reforms, while conversely states with more generous welfare programs are most effective at reducing child poverty rates. This has been found in research with OECD countries as well, with more generous social welfare programs directly correlated to reductions in both relative and absolute poverty.

Historically, Australia’s social safety net has effectively eliminated or reduced the effect of socio-economic status on school achievement, for example (see also here). However, increasing the punitive aspects of welfare is a misplaced lever for change. For example, recent changes in the Welfare to Work program means genuine job seekers are not supported to find meaningful work, while compliance requirements eat up people’s time and energy that could be spent on other productive pursuits. Meanwhile, it does not appear to lead to increased employment rates.

There is a strong body of research that indicates that keeping people out of poverty facilitates positive long-term changes. For example, a review of government cash transfer programs found that they do not discourage participation in employment (nor do they lead to increases in expenditures on such items as alcohol or tobacco). Related Australian research found that single mothers benefited from higher rates of child support; they were more – not less – likely to re-enter work. (This may be due to the attendant costs of employment, such as child care, transportation, and wardrobe needs. These are not insignificant amounts for working mothers, and especially so for single mothers.

Rather than punishing people who are on welfare, policies could be put in place which:

a.       Counter-balance the growing inequality in Australia.

b.      Address the specific needs of different demographics.

c.       Don’t assume that employment is going to work for everyone, or at every stage of life.

d.      Has a focus on improved health, safety and wellbeing.

Australia welfare has historically worked very well, but current initiatives are undermining its effectiveness, pushing people into poverty, and creating far greater (and more expensive) social and economic problems. Employing an evidence base rather than responding to uninformed stereotypes of welfare users would be a more effective response.