Income Management For Asylum Seekers


“Asylum seekers could be placed on a work for the dole scheme, which would include income management, under plans announced by the opposition and supported by the government. Under the deal, asylum seekers would be paid welfare in the form of food and accommodation vouchers in return for their labour, opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said. They would work on community projects to earn the vouchers, worth about 89 per cent of the Newstart allowance, he said.”

If you were to ask a group of communications students to write something to push buttons of some assumed prejudiced voters, the above paragraph, taken from yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, would have to be marked highly. It picks up and reinforces known prejudices against asylum seekers, dole recipients, welfare in general — and also adds the assumption that asylum seekers need to be forced into contributing to social wellbeing.

This proposal means that asylum seekers are the latest shameful addition to the increasing list of groups that are being subjected to controls over their inadequate welfare payments. Interestingly this policy shift is supported by both major parties. The compulsory income management model was initially trialled by the Howard government as part of the NT Emergency Response — aka the Intervention — in 2007 and then unfortunately embraced and extended by the incoming ALP government. The control over the spending of half the welfare payments of the original 72 Indigenous communities required suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. This breach of UN criteria was removed in 2010, when Income Management was limited to allowances and extended to all NT working age recipients.

Since then some other schemes have been introduced in Indigenous communities in Cape York and WA, and five other locations with high unemployment levels. Recently the NPY lands were added as well as new categories such as young people who cannot live at home and payments for those leaving gaol. Adding asylum seekers fits the pattern of imposing control over the spending rights of those unlikely to have much public support.

This newest proposal is particularly offensive and suggests Scott Morrison is looking for even more ways of removing any decent sense of autonomy from income recipients. Firstly it is shameful that these asylum seekers are being offered 89 per cent of an already totally inadequate Newstart payment. As they have no other resources or networks, most will find the sum totally insufficient for even low level survival. Now they will be obliged, not invited, to contribute their labour as a condition of this inadequate payment.

As they are now forbidden to do any voluntary work, many may welcome the change, as doing nothing with no money can be very destructive. However being compelled to do it for food vouchers is not likely to be a good experience. It seems to be aimed more at shaming them than engaging them and hopefully adding the necessary extra income they need to survive without charity.

More generally, the increasing use of compulsory Income Management is both expensive and offensive. According the ANAO assessment of its bureaucratic delivery costs in the NT, it costs about $120 per week per person! Interestingly, in the various cost cutting exercises undertaken around welfare spending, the costs of income management were not considered. This is particularly odd as the costs are very high and the benefits appear to be negligible or even negative. The many evaluations that have been undertaken on the various schemes have failed to show any clear significant benefits and some of the reports suggest possible negative consequences. The recent Social Policy Research Centre stage one evaluation of the NT scheme had serious difficulties in finding any evidence of benefits, just a belief of benefits by some recipients.

The SPRC evaluation recorded some negative views and feelings from many of the recipients of compulsory Income management and reported benefits evidence as inconclusive. As some communities covered had been recipients for five years, and now six, were policy benefits possible they would be evident by now. Reported feelings of shame and other negative responses emerged in some earlier reports, such as that by the Equal Rights Alliance and the AIDA report.

Therefore expanding an expensive and possibly damaging program to an already damaged group of people such as asylum seekers seems both stupid and reckless. Why adopt it unless your main objective is playing to prejudice?

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