Welfare 'activation' policies are counterproductive

Continuing her series of original posts on Australia's employment services system, Simone Casey (@SimoneCasey) of the RMIT Future Social Services Institute (@FutureSocialAU) discusses harm caused by the Targeted Compliance Framework (TCF) for income support on people in living in precarious financial situations. Her previous posts explore issues related to welfare conditionalityParentsNextmutual obligation; 'work first' activation of jobseekers; the growing presence of automation in Australia's welfare system and Work for the Dole.

Does the Targeted Compliance Framework give welfare recipients a go?

Minister Cash recently claimed that suspending welfare recipients’ income support payments for not meeting their mutual obligation requirements is not punitive - rather, that it shows that the Targeted Compliance Framework (TCF) introduced in July 2018 is working as intended to ‘activate’ unemployed people to look for work. Yet the TCF data referred to in the media that accompanied this claim tells another story that deserves attention. It highlights how fundamental shifts of recent welfare reforms are meeting a cost-saving agenda in which social security decisions have been automated; and where definitions of appropriate conditionalities for income support are being determined by ideology rather than evidence.

I have been writing about these issues on Power to Persuade in recent weeks. This post draws on TCF data and the ParentsNext program to continue the debate.

As one of the tropes accompanying recent welfare reform, Mutual Obligation (MO) is an artificially constructed notion that implies there is something reciprocal about conditionality. It is often accompanied by rhetoric that the community expects unemployed citizens to give something back for their welfare payments.  As I have recently written about the tree-shaking implicit in the recent increase in MO hours and Work for the Dole commitments, it is not based on evidence; it is not resourced, and it has been creating a compliance burden that is harming many unemployed people and undermining the integrity of civil society organisations.

Punitive ParentsNext

In the case of ParentsNext, MO is paraded as justification for activating mainly single parents with children under six on the paternalistic premise that they are destined for future, God forbid, intergenerational ‘welfare dependence’.  Yet overwhelming evidence provided to the recent Senate Inquiry into ‘welfare dependence’ demonstrated that the risk of welfare dependence is confined to areas with locational disadvantages, and that the best response to counter it is targeted, place-based intervention by agencies with strong local knowledge.

When the barriers to employment are insurmountable, the TFC is nothing but cruel.  Photo credit Pixabay .

When the barriers to employment are insurmountable, the TFC is nothing but cruel. Photo credit Pixabay.

Instead, with ParentsNext we have a broadbrush activation program delivered by a competitive market of providers, in which a compliance framework designed for the employment services system is used for surveillance of behavioural compliance.  While there has already been significant attention drawn to the harms this is causing affected parents, recent data raises new concerns. In the first six months of this year, payments to 546 parents’ families were cancelled for non-compliance. 

In response to concerns raised about the TCF in the ABC background briefing, The Minister for Employment, Michaelia Cash, responded:

"The Targeted Compliance Framework (TCF) is not punitive. Under the TCF, participants who are genuinely trying to meet their requirements but are simply having difficulty doing so are not unfairly penalised."

The word punitive means ‘inflicting or intended as punishment’. The suspensions are used to get unemployed people to re-engage with their provider –specifically, to discipline them into meeting the requirements of a job plan with externally imposed obligations. In what way is this not punitive?

…And those so-called ‘bludgers’

While ParentsNext continues to receive some media attention, the effects of the TCF in jobactive more broadly also need scrutiny. Minister Cash proudly announced last week that  2.4 million payment suspensions had been applied and 80 per cent of Newstart recipients had had their payments suspended at least once over the last year.  Compared to data for June 2018, payment suspensions have increased by 50 per cent under TCF automated arrangements compared to the previous model.

We should not blithely accept that payment suspensions do not cause harm to vulnerable job seekers. Failure to comply with MO requirements is more often than not something an unemployed person does not have choice about, and it threatens their already precarious financial situation.  Even a cursory glance at the twitter #notadolebludger reveals the true extent of the every day suffering of those subject to TCF.

It is also concerning that this  ‘bludgeoning of the jobless’ involved payment cancellations for 50,717 jobactive job seekers in the first 6 months of TCF, for failures to engage with their provider. This data provided to the Senate proudly trumpets these cancellations as only 7.7 per cent of the jobactive caseload and the TCF data showed cancellations for another 5317 jobactive job seekers.

I have recently been assisting the Australian Unemployed Workers Union hotline and have found that by far the majority of the calls are received from job seekers distressed about MO requirements and Work for the Dole.  There has also been an upsurge in unemployed workers ringing about in- work conditionality; that is, being required to attend provider appointments or changing their MO activity as it does not meet the new hours requirements.

Of course, the Minister and the Department of Employment will stand by the TCF and ParentsNext, because the primary aim of each is to save money.  They will continue pushing the tropes of welfare reform that subjugate the poor and reinforce social divisions.  Yet, scrutiny of these tropes and the reality of unemployment suggests that benefit application processes and attendant mutual obligation requirements under the Targeted Compliance Framework are too onerous. This means that activation programs intended to give people a go, as the Prime Minister so regularly reminds us, in fact do the opposite.