The Major Parties' War On The Undeserving Poor


Whatever happened to the idea of social security? The electoral agendas of both major parties have many notable omissions, particularly in social policy. Both Labor and Coalition prioritise economic growth and abolishing deficits, regardless of the consequences of poverty and inequality. They ignore the exclusion and discrimination that undermine their claims that the market can deliver a fair go for everyone. Whichever party wins, the campaign indicates they will neglect to address the social security needs of those excluded from a fair share of well being. 

This shift is the consequence of a long term trend: reluctance from debating the level of public support required to provide a decent support to those excluded from paid work. Privatisation and individualism assume the market will distribute to those who compete effectively but ignores the structural barriers to entry faced by many.

Kevin Andrews’ speeches on shifting to more corporate welfare models indicate the Coalition's planned cuts to welfare. They will cut benefits in an attempt to make welfare recipients self-supporting, despite the lack of available paid work.

However, the Coalition is not alone. A bipartisan consensus on punitive views towards welfare recipients is well-evidenced by recent changes to current income support payments. The Government, supported by the Opposition, has failed to increase Newstart, despite its abysmal inadequacy. As increasing numbers of people are being moved to very inadequate payments, the presumption that recipients of benefit payments are either sinners or incompetent is used to justify increasing behavioural controls on recipients.

This is clearly illustrated by over 100,000 sole parents, recently moved to Newstart, in order to prompt them to find jobs. After all, the mantra went, their youngest children were now eight and they should re-enter the workforce. The move ignored data that showed more than half already had paid jobs and that more hours often clashed with children’s needs. Others had serious difficulties finding appropriate work. Again Abbott supported this move. 

The statistics on vacancies and job hunters shows how illogical this consensus is. One reason for the increasing numbers of benefit recipients is the toughening of the criteria for access to the pensions, for the deserving poor. At the same time, many predict demand for labour is decreasing. There is already a gross misfit between job vacancies and those officially looking for work: about one job for every eight seekers.

Therefore it is hard to justify the claim that keeping people on very low incomes will make them take jobs. Add to the mix the increasing numbers of people with disabilities, now moved onto Newstart, as well as about half of the existing recipients, who are not classified as job seekers because they are sick, caring, volunteering, too old, training etc. Should their poverty motivate them to enter the workforce? Such an assumption doesn't hold. Similarly, statements by Abbott about Indigenous Australians, who should get jobs like other people, ignore both mainstream prejudices and the lack of opportunities in many areas.

In November 2010 I suggested that conditional welfare was on the way; the NT Intervention allowed the ALP to pilot new ways of delivering welfare payments. By trying out income management in the 72 communities that were part of the emergency zone, new ways of controlling welfare delivery were disguised as for "Aborigines only", justified by the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. By 2011, the program was "de-racialised" across the NT and now controls at least 50 per cent of payments, usually via a BasicsCard.

This type of welfare control further illustrates the conservative assumption that the main cause of being  out of the paid workforce is some disorder or incompetence on the part of the "customer". Therefore, imposing limits on what could be bought and where — and maybe have some bills paid by Centrelink — will impose order and make job seeking more effective. It bans gambling, grog, smokes and porn — and should somehow translate into buying more healthy food and household staples.

Again, there is no good evidence to suggest such an approach works, as shown by a Parliamentary Library brief. However, the program has already been rolled out in the poorer suburbs of the nation's capital cities — Playford in Adelaide, Bankstown in Sydney and so on – despite the high cost of administration: between $6600 and $7900 per year, per person.

An indicator of future expansion comes with Scott Morrison’s proposed new target groups for the program. In June, Scott Morrison said he would add put asylum seekers onto income management also supported by the ALP. This proposal was then extended, as part of the election campaign, to those on the proposed Temporary Protection Visas

A year ago, Joe Hockey summed up the general view of both major parties that there should be no extra expectations of government support, in his "Age of Entitlement" speech in the UK. He attacked a wide range of policies — including the social safety net. Despite the extensive media coverage the speech attracted, there was no comprehensive alternative vision put up by the ALP.  

The only political group raising alternative views to this welfare approach are the Greens, who recognise the need to raise payments to a decent level. However, on their own they have little traction, despite some considerable support for more generous less punitive payments from groups as diverse as ACOSS and the Business Council.  

The danger is that the lack of a real election debate on welfare may be seen as legitimating further damage to a fair social security safety net — especially given the many unexamined policy changes so far. Do we really want a social security approach that is so much more punitive and controlling than our established system? Or do these changes risk permanent damage to those excluded and our wider social cohesion? In the election silence few of the general public are even aware of the changes that have occurred.

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