Income management and Indigenous women

The Women’s Policy Action Tank recently published a special issue of the Good Policy newsletter, exploring three areas of policy with a gender lens: women and the criminal justice system, Indigenous women, and women’s experience of employment. Each topic is explored using a dialectical approach, in which two authors approach a topic from a different angles. We will be publishing the paired articles on our blog over the coming three weeks. This week: read about the impacts of the welfare system on Indigenous women. This is a companion piece to Indigenous women: Rethinking economic security

This policy analysis is contributed by Dr Shelley Bielefeld, College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU

Recent years have seen an increase in cashless welfare transfers, known in Australia as income management, with racialised and gendered consequences.[1] First introduced as part of the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response,[2] income management has since been considerably expanded.[3] Australia now has several income management schemes, and conditions for welfare recipients vary depending upon the income management category to which they are subject.[4]

Since 2010 most income-managed welfare recipients have had at least 50 per cent of their regular social security payments allocated to a government-issued BasicsCard for expenditure on legislatively-defined ‘priority needs’.[5] The BasicsCard cannot be used to purchase alcohol, tobacco, pornography or gambling products. This measure applies to social security recipients residing in the Northern Territory and in place-based income management trial areas. They are subject to what the government describes as ‘new income management’. Indigenous welfare recipients continuously have been heavily overrepresented under new income management.[6]

"The patriarchal colonial state has often sought to regulate and control Indigenous women rather than empower them."  Artistic rendering of the Australian Aboriginal flag by Marty D .   

"The patriarchal colonial state has often sought to regulate and control Indigenous women rather than empower them." Artistic rendering of the Australian Aboriginal flag by Marty D.   

Since 2016 welfare recipients in Ceduna, Kununurra and Wyndham have also been subject to income management via the industry-issued Indue cashless welfare debit card as part of a trial of Andrew Forrest’s ‘Healthy Welfare Card’ recommendation.[7] Those subject to the Indue card have 80 per cent of their social security income restricted, with the option of applying to a community panel to have their restricted portion reduced to not less than 50 per cent. The Indue card cannot be used to purchase alcohol or gambling products. Indigenous welfare recipients are also grossly overrepresented under the Indue card.[8]

The government rationale for income management is that it “operates as a tool to support vulnerable individuals and families”, and “to stabilise people’s circumstances by limiting expenditure of income support payments on excluded items, including alcohol, tobacco, pornography, gambling goods and activities.”[9] However, research indicates that income management has led to a range of consequences ostensibly unintended by policymakers. These include an increase in social exclusion, stigma and difficulty in providing for family needs, whilst also undermining the autonomy and agency of welfare recipients subject to it.[10] Income management has created considerable problems that remain unaddressed and unacknowledged by government policymakers responsible for welfare reform.

Empirical research indicates that Indigenous women are overrepresented in new income management categories, the BasicsCard system, and they are also disproportionately subject to the Indue Card.[11] Significantly, Indigenous women have been portrayed in a negative way in official income management discourse as though they suffer from passivity, incapacity, vulnerability and lack of agency. The needs of Indigenous women have therefore been a central justification for the continuance of income management. This has ramifications in terms of ongoing regulatory interventions into Indigenous women’s lives, with adverse consequences for many. For instance, 49 per cent of trial participants subject to the Indue Card have reported that is “made their lives worse,” and numerous participants reported running out of money for essential items needed for children.[12]

Through its income management discourse, the government promotes the expansion of bureaucratic control over Indigenous women, ostensibly to ‘support’ them and their offspring, whether they desire this or not. Examination of income management reports shows that hypocrisy stalks the rhetoric. Touted by government as a necessary form of support and protection for welfare recipients, their families and their communities, income management has instead brought greater difficulties for many of those subject to it, and failed to achieve the policy objectives unilaterally designed and imposed by the government. Evidence shows that income management can create some of the problems policymakers claim it remedies so effectively: for example, while household expenditures remained unchanged, sourcing items became difficult and expensive, managing the budget became highly complex, accessing account balances was not always easy, and cards were at times faulty. Many women reported increases in feeling stress, shame or powerlessness as a result; many women also reported feeling less safe, as crime increased due to scarcity of cash. Yet despite deficiencies in evidence, income management continues to be lauded by leading politicians.

The patriarchal colonial state has often sought to regulate and control Indigenous women rather than empower them. Indigenous women are familiar with the grim realities of benevolent colonial narratives that hinder self-determination. Over a billion dollars has been funnelled into income management, and the government continues to fund this costly policy failure. This fiscally limits other options the government could take to support Indigenous women that may well produce superior outcomes. So long as the government continues to funnel resources towards income management, fewer funds will be available to support alternatives consistent with Indigenous self-determination.

References

[1] This article contains edited abstracts from Dr Shelley Bielefeld’s article, Income Management and Indigenous Women – A New Chapter of Patriarchal Colonial Governance? (2016) University of New South Wales Law Journal, 39:2, pp. 843-878.

[2] via the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Act 2007 (Cth).

[3] via the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Act 2010 (Cth); the Social Security Legislation Amendment Act 2012 (Cth); and the Social Services Legislation Amendment (No. 2) Act 2015 (Cth).

[4] Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 (Cth), sections 123TA-123UGG and 124PF-124PP.

[5] Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 (Cth), section 123TH(1).

[6] Department of Social Services, Income Management Summary Data, https://www.data.gov.au/dataset/income-management-summary-data.

[7] Andrew Forrest, The Forrest Review (Report, Commonwealth of Australia, 2014) pp. 100–8; Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Act 2015 (Cth).

[8] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice and Native Title Report 2016. Australian Human Rights Commission, 2016, pp. 91-92.

[9] Explanatory Memorandum, Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 (Cth) 2.

[10] Shelley Bielefeld (2016). Income Management and Indigenous Women – A New Chapter of Patriarchal Colonial Governance? University of New South Wales Law Journal, 39:2, pp. 843-878.

[11] J. Rob Bray et al. (2014) Evaluating New Income Management in the Northern Territory. Final Evaluation Report. Social Policy Research Centre, September 2014, p. 69. Orima Research (2017). Cashless Debit Card Trial Evaluation: Wave 1 Interim Evaluation Report. Department of Social Services: Canberra.

[12] Orima Research (2017). Cashless Debit Card Trial Evaluation: Wave 1 Interim Evaluation Report. Department of Social Services: Canberra; p. 5.