How To Get From Welfare To Work Without Punishing The Poor


The future shape of Australia’s welfare safety net has caused widespread debate over the past few weeks.

The release of the Forrest Report and the unveiling of details of a new employment services system have come on top of existing reform processes including the McClure review, the Commission of Audit and well documented measures outlined in the Federal Budget.

A wide range of solutions has been proposed to get greater number of Australians away from so-called ‘welfare dependence’ and into employment. These proposed solutions include a radical expansion of the work for the dole scheme and income management, both of which have sparked intense debate.

This debate has served to obscure a significant level of consensus across our community regarding the need to enhance universal services alongside strengthening the welfare safety net.

We all want to tackle the challenge of long-term unemployment and maximise opportunities to get people into work. Most agree that in order to achieve this we must think beyond the welfare system and focus on children’s formative years, high quality education systems, and intervening early to prevent social problems from becoming entrenched.

The importance of active and inclusive communities is also understood.

Where there has been disagreement, it has been about what the problems facing the welfare safety net are and how we should respond to them. Chief among the problems that have been identified is that of ‘welfare dependence’.

However, the reality is that many recipients of welfare in Australia are not work-ready people who simply lack the motivation to go out and find a job. Rather the current welfare safety net supports a small proportion of our community, including many people with complex needs.

This includes many of the people Jesuit Social Services works with who experience mental illness, alcohol and drug problems, homelessness, the impacts of family violence, trauma, and neglect, and the absence of family and community connections.

They also face structural barriers, most clearly the fact they compete in a jobs market where jobseekers outnumber vacancies by five to one. 

Major reforms to the country’s welfare system instituted by Governments of both political persuasions over the past two decades have resulted in a more targeted, participation focused system which in combination with a strong economy means around 60 per cent of people who receive unemployment payments in a given year will exit the system within 3 months.

In 21st century Australia, the ‘dole bludger’ is more of a myth than a reality.

Of course, the fact many people face significant barriers to employment does not mean that we should give up on them.

Our organisation has nearly 40 years of experience working with some of the most marginalised members of our society and each and every day we encounter people who, despite extraordinarily challenging life circumstances, continue to hold aspirations and genuine desires to participate productively in society.

At the heart of Australia’s welfare reform must be a response to best support them to achieve this.

The expansion of tough and restrictive approaches clearly appeals to many people as a means to solve deep societal problems. However, questions remain over whether these measures will succeed in their aims.

While they seek to control people and may result in better compliance, will they build peoples capabilities which are so often what employers seek?

While they may cut numbers accessing and receiving payments, will those same people resurface in the jobs market or instead in crisis shelters, hospital departments or prisons?

The evidence is uncertain and the risks significant. Our experience tells us these outcomes are almost inevitable.

As a starting point, Jesuit Social Services believes our welfare system should seek to promote both economic participation – employment – as well as wider forms of social participation.

This would better account for the complex pathways to work that people often take, which can involve lengthy periods of volunteering, learning and other forms of productive activity.

There is emerging evidence demonstrating the importance of social connections to building not only personal resilience but a range of health and wellbeing indicators.

Getting people into work also requires investment in building capabilities and in creating pathways through learning and into jobs.

Training for the sake of training does not cut it. Our country needs a system geared towards not only training for jobs, but training for lifelong learning and development.

We have seen these measures in practice ourselves. Between 2003 and 2010, Jesuit Social Services operated the Gateway Program which focused on developing the social and economic participation of young people with complex needs.

This was done by providing ongoing, holistic support and flexible learning and work pathways. It achieved terrific outcomes in tackling significant barriers such as mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse, and promising outcomes in getting disengaged young people back on pathways into learning and employment.

The reality of the situation is that initiatives such as Gateway require adequate investment (Gateway required an average of $13,500 per participant) and rarely fit into ‘the box’ of siloed funding streams. Herein lies a fundamental challenge.

Current reforms to the welfare safety net are taking place at a time where Governments are also cutting spending.

During these times, there is a risk that harsher and cheaper measures to drive people off welfare will prove more alluring than genuine efforts focused on promoting participation that tackle structural barriers to work and build peoples capabilities.

* Julie Edwards joined Jesuit Social Services in 2001 and was appointed as CEO in 2004. She has more than 35 years experience engaging with marginalised people and families experiencing breakdown and trauma.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.