Time to rethink the time policy in Welfare to Work

The Liberal’s Welfare to Work model has been dissected from many angles, including several Power to Persuade blogs (e.g., this recent policy comparison, this discussion of the psychological impacts of feeling ‘workless’, and this piece on how current welfare policies are designed to punish recipients.  Today’s piece provides an insider’s perspective, as Juanita McLaren uses the required number of work hours to demonstrate the illogical bureaucratic requirements that are placed on recipients. Juanita is on student placement with Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand.

Welfare to Work requires single parents to work 15 to 25 hours a week in return for their parenting payment, or apply for a discretionary amount of jobs per month in lieu.

Two days.  Sounds reasonable enough. But here’s the question: Why is it based on an hourly amount worked rather than a dollar amount earned?  If the parenting payment is a dollar amount, then why is the ‘contribution’ back to society not measured in the same way? As we know, hourly rates can vary greatly from $19.44 in a retail role, to $50 per hour in some temp administrative roles to the astronomical figures that top executives receive.

In other words, if we are bound by a neoliberalist system that equates societal participation (and therefore inclusion) with functioning in a market economy, then is the time spent participating important, or is the productivity of earning more money in less time the sign of an ‘effective citizen’?

As a single parent of three primary school aged boys with my youngest child being seven years old, I have been on the Welfare to Work program for over 12 months.  I am primary carer to my children and am also studying a Master of International Community Development.  Choosing to return to study was a decision I made because it would allow me to be present for my children while they were still in primary school, and would also allow me to upskill from 18 years in the not-for-profit sector, ensuring some financial security for the future and perhaps even some superannuation. I had reached a career level that was starting to require a lot more travel and didn’t allow for the adequate flexibility required as a single parent.

While also studying between a 50 and 75 per cent loading of the Masters program, I have also dabbled in consulting work for industry friends to supplement my income when time has allowed. The kind of stuff that I can sit down and whip out without too much effort – you know, the kind of stuff that 18 years of experience will allow you to do. I generally charge between $40 and $60 an hour, partly because it’s for friends, and partly because I don’t have the confidence to charge what my experience is really worth.

On one such occasion I put in 8 hours a week for 4 weeks, including background work for two grant applications and researching some other upcoming grant opportunities. I charged $40 an hour, which worked out to be $320 each week.

When I went to my local job network provider for my monthly compliance meeting, I was asked why I hadn’t applied for my 6 jobs that month.  (This had recently been reduced from the standard 12 jobs a month because I was studying 30 hours per week and volunteering 10 hours per week). I explained that if I had been doing the usual jobs that suited my study and parenting schedule, like a retail job, the average pay is $18.86 per hour.  With the consulting work, I was doing the same value of work in half the time - win for me, win for the kids, win for society.  It also, I assumed, reflected neoliberalism and economic efficiency whereby privatised markets take pressure off government dollars. Look at that lazy woman with her poor decision-making skills and welfare grabbing ways being efficient!  At $18.86 an hour I would have been required to work double the hours to make the same amount.

Unfortunately though, this did not fit in with the compliance requirements. I would still need to apply for six jobs, but kindly it was added it to the next month’s six applications requirement. Not only did that $320 in its entirety come straight out of my parenting payment – so working did not actually benefit me or my children at all –  but I needed to also apply for six more jobs that I would not be able to accept due to my 75% loading at uni.  And if I didn’t, I would be non-compliant and therefore ineligible for my payment.

This is an area of the Welfare to Work program that allows for discretion, but it rests with the job network employee who has the power to implement government policy without actually working for the government. Micro-aggressions are regularly used to reinforce their power over others, while the system does not support people’s use of experience to gain better pay for their time.  This achieves the goals of creating a bureaucratic nightmare for people in difficult circumstances, but falls short of supporting them to bridge into re-employment.

In short, this is another example of how the current Welfare to Work program does little to assist those receiving government support to exit a cycle of poverty, and does little to support the sense of wellbeing and confidence required to fully participate in a society where heavily conditional systems and definitions of participation are forever shifting and discretionary, and whose welfare policies do not reflect the real experiences of those who are on the receiving end.