Welfare policy: a poverty scorecard

Being in receipt of welfare is the most significant factor in Australians experiencing poverty. Associate Professor Ruth Phillips from the University of Sydney analyses what the three major political parties are claiming they will do to reduce poverty in Australia; their capacity to deliver on their promises; and their welfare policy history. Scoring the parties on a scale of 0–4, where 0 = very low confidence and 4 = very high confidence, her overall scorecard has the ALP in front by virtue of its detailed equality policy that acknowledges issues that affect inequality and social justice in Australian society, but notes it has room for improvement in punitive policies affecting welfare recipients and refugees.

This post is an extract from the 2016 Australian Poverty Audit prepared by ASAP Oceania. Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP) is an international network helping scholars, teachers and students enhance their impact on global poverty.

Welfare Policy

Current policies and challenges

The Salvation Army’s National Social and Economic Impact Survey (2016) painted a clear picture of the contemporary face of poverty in Australia. The survey, which went to 600 users of the Salvation Army’s targeted poverty relief services, highlighted four major areas that reflect the kind of poverty experienced by a significant group of Australians. The dominant themes were: inaccessibility of suitable, affordable and sustainable housing; inadequacy of income support and unemployment; prolonged financial pressure and experiences of deprivation and; the risk of poverty and social exclusion for children and young people (Salvation Army, 2016). The number of children that were covered by the survey was 1,794 and it found that they experienced a level of deprivation that meant they were failing to flourish. Nearly 60 per cent of the children did not have any access to the Internet, and 74 per cent did not have any access to any form of computer. As a relative poverty measure, it raised concerns about the perpetuation of children’s inequality through social disconnection and competition in the youth labour market. When this type of deprivation exists in conjunction with other findings of housing instability, family violence and poor food security, children have a bleak future. The most profound reality found in this study and similar qualitative explorations of poverty in Australia such as the ACCOSS’ ‘Poverty in Australia Report’ (2014) is that women, mothers and particularly single mothers are the most vulnerable to poverty in Australia. Economic, gender, ethnic, age, disability and racial inequalities are central to why people experience poverty, but being in receipt of welfare is the most significant factor (Salvation Army, 2016; ACOSS, 2014).

When considering the occurrence of poverty across the whole of Australian society, solutions lie in the strength of the welfare state and the concept of social citizenship. Social citizenship is created by strong social policies that recognise that the market is not the only or best way to address welfare and that families are not always successful at providing an environment for a flourishing life for all of their members. Social citizenship addresses inequality by recognising how to redress it. It seeks to negate inequality between genders, inequality due to race, age, ethnicity, religion or ability and inequality due to personal, geographical and demographic disadvantage.

Although income is not the best single measure of poverty, as has been argued by many in the welfare sector in Australia, a key action to address the greatest poverty would be to increase welfare payments (direct transfers), with a focus on allowances. For example, the Newstart Allowance, for unemployed people determined as being capable of working at least 15 hours per week is nearly $200 below the poverty line for a single person and $230 for a couple with two children, per week (Melbourne Institute of Labour Economics and Policy, 2015).  However, increasing welfare payments has to go hand in hand with appropriate funding of other areas of support for a flourishing life. This includes access to affordable housing, good public transport, equal opportunities in education, health, training, sport, food security and so on. A social citizenship model supports a holistic view of how to address poverty.

There has not been a social citizenship oriented policy in Australia since the Hawke/Keating Labour government under the Accord, ending in 1986. The dominance of conservative governance in Australia since then has moved welfare increasingly to a residual model, a safety net model, in an environment that promotes market solutions to all social problems. The successive Liberal/National Party Coalition government’s policies for welfare have always been to reduce the cost of welfare. This is in keeping with long held principles that the market and the family are the best providers of welfare. As treasurer Morrison observed in his address to the National Press Club:

But if you want to control the welfare system and its costs over the future, we need to do the things we’ve talked about, but putting young people into jobs is one of the best ways to do that (Morrison, 2016).

A ‘jobs and economy’ approach denies the complexity of why people are in poverty and fails to address inequality in all of its forms. Connections between what are recognisable social problems such as violence against women, racial and ethnic discrimination and age discrimination, for example, require policies that are holistic and thorough.  Australia does not have a poverty policy, as conservatives in Australia would rather debate how poverty is measured than accept that around 13 per cent (2.5 million people) of the population live in poverty (ACOSS 2015).  The ALP, in its 2016 election promises, has announced a social equality policy (The Growing Together Report) and has promised to review Newstart welfare payments and greater support for people with disabilities to find work (Butler, 2016). It also makes connections between issues such as domestic violence and inequality, therefore appears to be placing greater recognition on the complexity disadvantage.

 Poverty scorecard

The Australian Labor Party

The ALP has the highest scores because they are the only party to have a clearly spelt out and detailed equality policy that recognises the key poverty groups and makes links to complex issues that affect inequality and social justice in Australian society. They acknowledge the research and advice from key community based, social justice organisations such as the Brotherhood of St Laurence and ACOSS. They did not score higher than 3 for each category because they have not suggested they will pull back from some of the punitive polices affecting people in receipt of welfare or refugees such as: the cashless card, work for the dole and the activity compliance measures, which can result in suspension of cash transfers, introduced under the Howard government.

The Coalition

The Liberal/National Party coalition has scored very poorly because their approach to welfare is to reduce the cost of welfare, construct welfare as a burden to tax payers and to reduce social citizenship. They are committed to reducing funding for key pillars of social citizenship including the community services sector, public health (Medicare) and public education. The Coalition supports a trickle down market approach to welfare, promotes a safety net only approach and has had only one poverty reduction policy in their election promises – youth unemployment and training. This policy appears to support business with subsidies whilst paying trainees less than the minimum wage.

The Australian Greens

The Greens have scored less than the ALP but much higher than the Coalition because they espouse social justice principles and recognise the links between inequality and other social issues such as domestic violence. They have strong, although not detailed, proposals for Indigenous Australians rights, children’s rights, and the reduction of poverty through income and services supports. However, the absence of detail related to specific existing and future policies and the lack of their capacity to deliver on poverty prevention is a major limitation due to their likely lack of power over government decisions.

Overall scorecard

Completing the poverty scorecard and the overall scorecard is based on the parties/alliances election policy platforms and rhetoric in the election campaign. The scores are therefore directly related to what the parties/alliance claim they will do and their capacity to implement their promises. Their welfare policy history is taken into account as it reflects the ideological position of the parties and assists in considering how effective their policies may be, should they have sufficient power to ensure governmental support


ACOSS (2014) The Poverty Report, 2014, Strawberry Hills: Australian Council of Social Service, http://www.acoss.org.au/images/uploads/ACOSS_Poverty_in_Australia_2014.pdf

Butler, J. (2016) ‘Labor Unveils Social Equality Policy’ The Huffington Post Australia, http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2016/03/16/labor-social-equality_n_9474856.html

Melbourne Institute of Labor Economics and Policy (2015) ‘Poverty Lines Australia September 2015’, Melbourne University https://melbourneinstitute.com/miaesr/publications/indicators/poverty-lines-australia.html

Morrison, S. (2016) Treasurer’s National Press Club Address (May 4th, 2016) https://www.liberal.org.au/latest-news/2016/05/04/national-press-club-address

Salvation Army (2016) National Social and Economic Impact Survey, Blackburn, Victoria: Salvation Army, Australia Southern Territory