The increasingly punitive welfare policies of the Coalition government have been explored from a range of angles here, but today’s post provides a framework for understanding them. Policy Whisperer Susan Maury (@SusanMaury) of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand suggests that government welfare policies fit the definition for economic abuse.
A brief history of Australian welfare philosophy
There was a time in Australia, most recently in the Hawke/Keating years, when the welfare system was viewed as a way to address and reduce poverty. This social citizenship model attempts to reduce inequalities experienced by vulnerable populations; despite some shortcomings, the model facilitated significant poverty reduction. This framing of ‘what welfare is for’ can be seen as an anomaly in the Australian context, with the so-called “wage earner’s welfare state” in the ascendancy for much of recent history. In this model, welfare is designed for workers, and the most vulnerable sectors of Australian society are at most afterthoughts. In opposition from 2007-2013, the Liberal party signalled its hostile stance towards the social citizenship model, with four key critiques: the need to reduce expenditure; a focus on individual behaviour change rather than a systems approach; counterbalancing entitlements with obligations; and diverting responsibility from the government to the community (Mendes, 2014). Reflective of the wage earner’s welfare state, a paternalistic and controlling attitude towards those reliant on welfare is seen as their just due.
With their election win in 2013, the Coalition Government has adopted a range of welfare reform measures that has at its core an actuarial approach, in which vulnerable populations are seen as a liability to the bottom line and are deliberately targeted to be moved off of welfare. As such, the government has put in place a clear plan to reduce the number of individuals receiving welfare, and, similar to their policies on asylum seekers, their primary method to accomplish this appears to be to make receiving welfare as traumatic as possible. I discuss the possible causes and effects of conditional welfare policies elsewhere, but here I want to argue that these policies may fit the definition of economic abuse, and contradict the government’s own statements in support of reducing all forms of domestic and family violence.
Economic abuse is a form of violence
Intimate Partner Violence, or IPV, is defined by UN Women as “a pattern of assaultive and coercive behaviors, including physical, sexual, and psychological attacks, as well as economic coercion, that adults or adolescents use against their intimate partners.” Economic abuse is a form of IPV, and has been defined as involving behaviours that “control a woman’s ability to acquire, use and maintain economic resources” (Adams et al., 2008, p. 564). Economic abuse is often, but not always, part of a pattern of abusive control that incorporates other forms of IPV, and can continue long after the relationship has ended. As with other forms of IPV, economic abuse is gendered in its manifestation, and is most often perpetrated by men towards women.
Economic abuse can manifest in many ways, including:
- Control over day-to-day household financials and spending decisions
- Restricting access to bank accounts
- Setting an inadequate budget for covering reasonable household expenses
- Denying access to financial information and decision-making
- Creating a situation of food insecurity
- Exerting power and control over a women’s salary, savings, debt, credit, and/or employment through actions or threats
- Forcing a woman to survive on accumulated debt
- Blocking access to social and economic participation
- Sabotaging education or employment opportunities
- Denying access to means of transport or communication
- Financially monitoring, over-controlling and scrutinising the woman (See the full list here, pages 1-2)
For many women who are reliant on welfare support, this list may reflect not only their prior experiences with an abusive partner, but also their interactions with the welfare system, contrary to the legal landscape and the government’s own statements concerning economic abuse.
The legal and political landscape within Australia
In Australia, economic abuse is now recognised as a form of family and domestic violence in many jurisdictions, which includes the following:
- Unreasonable controlling behaviour without consent that denies a personal financial autonomy.
- Withholding financial support reasonably necessary for the maintenance of a partner.
- Coercing a partner to relinquish control over assets.
- Unreasonably presenting a person from taking part in decisions over household expenditure or the disposition of joint property.
- Coercing a person to claim social security payments.
- Preventing a person from seeking or keeping employment. (see p. 1 of Corrie & Mcguire, 2013)
The Coalition Government has stated that domestic violence is a “tragic and deadly epidemic,” and further that it is a priority for them that “any women or child [sic] who may be suffering understands that this is not acceptable and support is available.” These statements were supported by the Family and Domestic Violence Strategy 2016-19, which covers a range of violent behaviours, economic abuse, and also “exposing a child to the effects of these behaviours” (p. 3). Further, Principle 1 reads that “Family and domestic violence is never acceptable in any form. Our first priority when responding to affected customers and staff will be their safety and wellbeing,” while Principle 2 reads in part, “The responsibility for family or domestic violence always lies with the person who uses violence” (p. 5).
Words of reassurance belie an aggressive policy stance towards victims/survivors
When a woman leaves an abusive partner, there is the need for strong bridging support to ensure she and her children are kept safe; that physical and psychological after-effects receive professional attention; that the transition for children is smooth (particularly if it includes changing neighbourhoods and/or schools, or staying for a time in a refuge); that legal advice is available for negotiating the terms of separation, including distribution of debt and assets and payment of child support; and that the new family unit less one income earner (and often the primary income earner) is financially viable, including safe and affordable housing. It can take multiple attempts to leave and years to fully recover, as revealed by women’s heartbreaking and terrifying stories.
Government policy seems to have a disconnect between assisting a woman and her children to leave an abusive relationship and ensuring that they can re-establish their lives on a positive trajectory in the medium- and long-term. In fact, it’s something like a magic trick, in which the victim/survivor is supported to leave the abusive partner, and then – poof! – is turned into an enemy of the Australian national budget. Yes, “reducing welfare dependency” is part of the government strategy entitled “Ensuring the Government lives within its means.” This is done in part by ensuring the “integrity” of the welfare system through “encouraging” working-aged Australians to get off of welfare and into paid employment. These “encouragement” strategies have gained quite a bit of notoriety, but to recap some key items, they include (but are not limited to):
- No increase in the Newstart Allowance in real terms in 24 years (and which is currently below the poverty rate)
- Strict new policies on verifying relationship status
- Introduction of and attempted expansion of the Cashless Debit Card
- Piloting randomised drug testing of welfare recipients
- Introduction of a ‘demerit’ system in which minor infractions (for example, missing appointments) can lead to the suspension of payments
- · Increasing power to intermediary agencies to penalise job seekers
- Using algorithms to identify and collect debt from welfare recipients (“Robodebt”)
- New powers to deduct unpaid court fines from welfare payments
- Requiring newly arrived people to wait a minimum of 3 years before accessing any form of welfare
This can be seen as a gender-blind policy; after all, both women and men receive welfare payments (and, oddly, there does not appear to be a gendered breakdown of this information). However, it is likely that more women than men are reliant on welfare payments. This is due a range of issues, including the gender pay gap; more time spent on unpaid caring duties and housework; higher rates of precarious employment, lower superannuation balances and retirement funds, higher levels of poor health and compromised mental health; double the rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); increasingly higher rates of accessing homeless services; and a higher percentage (82%) of women managing single parent households. And, importantly to this discussion, women experience higher rates of domestic and family violence. Further, some groups of women are at higher risk of experiencing domestic or family violence, and this overlays with groups also more likely to experience disadvantage and more likely to be distanced from policy conversations – for example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women with a disability (Section 4, point 15), and women from CALD backgrounds who face more barriers to accessing support (Ibid., Section 4, point 16).
Getting women off of welfare at any cost (to them)
There is no doubt that the Federal government is looking to move mothers into employment, and especially single or disadvantaged mothers who may be receiving welfare payments. The recently-introduced ParentsNext is a primary signal of this intention, focussed on disadvantaged mothers with very young children and seemingly poorly designed to make a positive contribution. The Government has discussed women on welfare with such words as welfare cheat, selfish, greedy, and deceitful. Government policy appears to see all single mothers in the same light – that is, unemployed job seekers who will be motivated by punitive policies. Punitive approaches don’t work for anyone, but could potentially be dangerous for women leaving abuse, and are in direct contradiction to the government’s statements in support of reducing domestic and family violence. In fact, research indicates that harsher welfare policies are driving women back into relationships they have left – and certainly some of these will have been abusive. Further research indicates that women whose benefits are reduced or cut off often turn to their extended family and social networks to make up the deficit, placing both financial and social strains on these supportive relationships, which are particularly important for women who have left an abusive relationship.
Economic abuse perpetrated by the State – a few examples
Moving away from the government’s language choice of “encouraging” women into work and ensuring the “integrity of the social safety net,” it is not difficult to see the same patterns and intentions in welfare reform choices as are discussed in the concept of economic abuse. For example, the Cashless Debit Card is making life more difficult for women who are on it, and arguably making them less safe as well. A trauma-informed analysis of the Debit Card indicates it appears designed to exacerbate trauma rather than reduce it. It is also frighteningly easy to tick off the list of ways that economic abuse can manifest that was provided above and see these principles engrained in the policy: control over day-to-day household financials and spending decisions; restricting access to bank accounts, setting an inadequate budget for covering reasonable household expenses, denying access to financial information and decision-making… And so on, down the list. Further, this cruel policy has been forced on a population that has experienced intergenerational trauma deliberately created by a long and sordid history of official government policy.
While perhaps less dramatic in its presentation, the welfare to work policies that single mothers are subjected to also tick off many of the examples on the list; for example, creating a situation of food insecurity; exerting power and control over a woman’s salary, savings, debt, credit, and/or employment through actions or threats; blocking access to social and economic participation; financially monitoring, over-controlling and scrutinising the woman. The argument has been made that welfare to work policies are discriminatory towards single mothers and a breach of human rights.
The 3-year wait period for newly-arrived migrants will make it near-impossible for women in this situation who are experiencing abuse to leave the relationship. We already know that women from CALD backgrounds face many barriers to accessing information and services and some are also vulnerable to or victims of forced marriage and other forms of trafficking or slavery. Newly-arrived women and children are being uniquely penalised, contrary to the government’s position on reducing family violence.
Welfare policies work within an interrelated network of other policies to provide a safety net, and taken together the problem is sadly only magnified. For single mothers, and particularly for those leaving abusive relationships, Australia’s child support system facilitates economic abuse and entrenches poverty for women and children. The economic constriction of women by the government appears both deliberate and misogynist, particularly in light of research which demonstrates the best way for single mothers to move successfully into the workforce is through proper financial support while their primary role is looking after their children.
Coercion and control when what’s needed is holistic support
As with other forms of abuse, economic abuse is about coercion and control. A meta-analysis conducted using Australian data indicates that the welfare to work program has almost exclusively negative outcomes for mothers and their children, and much of this is due to poorly designed and proscribed one-size-fits-all interventions that leave no room for pursuing long-term career goals or aspirations; the study also found that financial wellbeing was reduced. These findings are confirmed by a systematic review of welfare to work outcomes in Australia, Canada, the UK, New Zealand, the US. Findings indicated unresolved conflicts between employment requirements and childcare responsibilities, poorly paid and precarious work outcomes, and negative physical and mental health outcomes, which were mediated by a lack of personal agency. These controlling, abusive techniques may be pushing some welfare recipients off of the government’s books, but the longer-term social costs will be much higher. Further, it is unconscionable to subject women to economic abuse under any circumstances, but it is particularly heinous to subject women who have left violence to be subjected to more of the same, at the hands of the State.
This deliberate strategy of punishing people who are on welfare payments is a way of targeting populations who are considered ‘unproductive’ by the government. However, it flies in the face of the government’s own policy stance on reducing domestic and family violence by making it nearly impossible for women to successfully re-establish their lives following separation from a violent partner. Further, its apparent goal of traumatising people who are on welfare mean women who have left an abusive relationship find themselves in a near-identical position with the State.
Framing welfare policy as economic abuse raises more questions than can be addressed here, such as:
- Has the government stance shifted from protector of vulnerable people (including women) to perpetrator of abuse, or has it always been thus?
- Has there been an escalation of aggression, as is often seen in abusive relationships?
- Is there a culture of victim blaming, in which welfare recipients are made to feel responsible for a situation that has in fact been created by the State (for example, utilising language of “leaners” and “dole bludgers”)?
- Where can victim/survivors get help if the government is not held accountable for their behaviour (including a lack of concern for protecting human rights)?
- Can a ‘system’ be reformed from abusive behaviour? If so, what will it take?
If this article has raised personal issues for you, you can talk to someone or get a referral at 1 800 RESPECT.