Why Drug Testing ‘Dole Bludgers’ Is A Terrible Idea

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While the Coalition is moving to a less punitive approach to welfare – for non-Aboriginal Australians! – Minister Christian Porter said he remains open to ideas. Including some very bad ones, writes Max Chalmers.

Still recovering from a sustained period of attacks, unemployed Australians must have been relieved by Social Services Minister Christian Porter’s recent address at the National Press Club.

The Coalition has been softly pivoting its welfare policy since the ousting of Tony Abbott and the 2016 budget wound back his expansion of Work for the Dole – although, notably, not in Aboriginal communities.

When that budget was announced, Treasurer Scott Morrison made a comment noteworthy for its stark contradiction of his own party’s recent form. The Treasurer said the government would be moving away from “less effective” programs like Work for the Dole, a centrepiece Abbott policy that costs billions but has little to no impact on employment outcomes.

Under the former Prime Minister, welfare policy had aimed to deprive and punish, to make living on welfare as difficult as possible; Work for the Dole for 25-hours a week; no payments until six months of unemployment; 40 job applications to be completed per month. All unworkable and unlikely to help you find work.

Short of getting on stage and beating a newly redundant worker with his bare hands, Porter would have been hard-pressed to come across as more ideological or severe than his recent predecessors. Instead, he seemed to continue the gentle drift in a new direction.

Porter’s speech laid out an apparently technocratic approach to the business of keeping unemployed people alive while maximising their chances of transitioning to work. The Minister didn’t explicitly repudiate Abbott’s cruel – and not to mention ineffective – intent, but he did outline a more evidence-based policy going forward.

Armed with a report from PwC, the Minister made the case for a system that trawls through reams of data and modelling to deduce which groups are most at risk of spending extended periods on welfare. Then he intervenes, yanking them back into the workforce before they become that most loathed member of the citizenry: a dependent.

The government has put aside $96 million, which NGOs will be able to tender for, pitching programs designed to assist these people.

Sounds dandy.

But despite positioning himself as the ideologically neutral, sensible-reforming-centrist emerging meekly from the haze of Rudd/Gillard/Abbott years, Porter also proffered suggestions that could lock-in the faults of the recent past. Of particular concern was a section on ‘mutual obligations’, the assumption that underlies Australia’s welfare policies and says to people receiving payments, ‘you owe us’.

“Why could mutual obligation not extend, in appropriate circumstances, to an obligation to refrain from excessive alcohol or from illicit drug use where the evidence clearly shows it creates barriers to employment, to obligations to turn up in a timely manner to key work appointments, to pay debts owed to the taxpayer, or to ensure children attend school,” the Minister asked.

Dr Kirrily Jordan, a research fellow at ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, was critical of these suggestions.

“It’s not clear what ‘mutual obligation’ would look like in this context, but the causes of things like excessive alcohol use and low school attendance are complex and cannot be solved by income penalties,” she told New Matilda.

“Further impoverishing and shaming people is not the solution.”

While the school attendance idea drew the most attention after Porter’s remarks, it’s worth pausing on the passing allusion to drugs and alcohol.

Porter’s office did not respond to a request for clarification about how people struggling with addiction would be monitored. It could be that the Minister conceives of the obligation as a measure coercing people towards treatment, for instance by forcing them to attend counselling or face having their payments docked. But his phrasing in the speech heavily implies some form of drug or alcohol testing with sanctions dealt to those who flunk them.

You can see why the most ardent dole-bludger-hunters in the Coalition’s wings – as well as the right-wing press – might enjoy this. Be warned, filthy millennial bong-rippers: your stoner kingdoms are about to fall!

The stance fits nicely alongside the persistent, utterly evidence averse obsession with pinning the deficit on young Australians when – as has been repeated ad nauseam – welfare reliance is easing while the most intractable problem continues to be demographic transition and the growth of aged pension payments.

Bad news, folks. It’s not Aboriginal people or millennials tanking the accounts.

The problem for those pretending moves like drug testing are anything other than a bit of moral retribution against people out of work is that coercive approaches to drug and alcohol dependence do no good for anybody, including those counting pennies in the Treasury, or those cocooned by the deep fog of addiction.

“From a treatment perspective, drug testing may work for treatment seekers in controlled clinical environments strongly linked to treatment programs (such as contingency management),” noted Dr Kirsten Morley, Senior Research Fellow in Addiction Medicine at the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Mental Health and Substance Use.

In an email, Dr Morley said experience in the US showed that broad drug testing was expensive and provided little benefit. Despite public expectations, only a small number of welfare recipients were found to have substance abuse problems.

“There is no evidence that a punitive approach in the general public, such as drug screening resulting in withholding of welfare payments, has any beneficial effect for these individuals (drug and alcohol use, employment etc). In fact, it is likely to be counterproductive by further entrenching them into the cycle of poverty, increasing stigma and leading to greater desperation and social disempowerment.

“A productive response is to facilitate the pathway to treatment not the pathway to helplessness.”

Dr Carolyn Day, an Associate Professor in Addiction Medicine at the University of Sydney, noted that people with substance abuse disorders may persist with harmful behaviours as a symptom of their addiction. To put that another way, the very nature of addiction – the thing that makes it so hard to respond to – is its ability to cloud the sound reasoning of the person afflicted, drawing them away from rational decisions rooted in self-interest.

In his speech, Porter compared people in this situation to those refusing to vaccinate their children. Yet as Dr Day’s comments make clear, these groups are not analogous.

Blunt, punitive approaches also fail to acknowledge a broader problem: addiction is very hard to cure.

“It is worth noting that there are some people that, for a range of reasons, will really struggle to cease use even with good evidence-based treatments, and for this group we operate in a harm reduction framework, one of the three pillars of the National Drug Strategy,” Dr Day said.

Needless to say, withdrawing income won’t help to reduce harm. Kicking these people out of the system or undercutting the slim support they get would be a recipe for disaster for the individual and their community.

As Dr Morley alluded to, drug testing is often floated in the US. Compulsory drug testing was recently introduced in Florida but found to be unconstitutional. While it operated, just 2.6 per cent of those tested returned a positive result, mostly for marijuana, which is broadly legal in the US anyway.

The measure proved costly and, in the end, illegal. But it was still a popular policy for the state’s Republican governor (who, at a press conference, refused to pee into a cup and have his sample tested by Jon Stewart’s Daily Show).

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The section of Porter’s speech in which he mentions drugs and alcohol smacks of the same approach favoured by Abbott, one that seeks to blame the unemployed for their predicament and find excuses to cut or manage their benefits. When governments are able to paint a villainous portrait of certain groups on payments, they can construct an excuse to cut holes in the net or increase the strain on those out of work.

It seems no coincidence then that Porter also praised the government’s Healthy Welfare Card, first tested on Aboriginal people as the BasicsCard, and now being expanded and trialled around the country. The card quarantines part of a welfare payment, preventing the recipient from access to the money in cash, and forcing them to spend it only at certain stores and on certain items.

Welfare management can work when people volunteer to do it, but two major reviews indicated that – much as you would expect of any plan that ties payments to getting clean – coercion caused personal hardship, but failed to deliver social benefits.

Consider this observation, the final point in a 2014 review of income management in the NT, conducted by academics at UNSW.

“The evaluation found that, rather than building capacity and independence, for many the program has acted to make people more dependent on welfare.”

That contradicts Porter’s central argument for his new approach, a reframed strategy in which people need to be liberated from welfare just as badly as from poverty.

The UNSW report also said it could not find substantive evidence that the policy had met key objectives or helped change people’s behavior.

“There was no evidence of changes in spending patterns, including food and alcohol sales, other than a slight possible improvement in the incidence of running out of money for food by those on Voluntary Income Management, but no change for those on compulsory income management,” the report concluded.

“The data shows that spending on BasicsCard on fruit and vegetables is very low.”

This was based on data and other evidence collected between 2007 – when the NT Intervention kicked off a new era of welfare control in Australia – and 2013.

A more recent and broader study by Deloitte found much the same, pointing to some benefits of voluntary income management, but few or none when the controls are compulsory. The report politely recommended the Department step-back from such measures.

“It is suggested that over time, the Department gives consideration to re-orienting the focus of measures to reflect the characteristics of the voluntary measure. That is, that over time, there is a lower reliance on compulsory mechanisms to engage consumers in the program unless there are exceptional circumstances at play.”

Christian Porter has been praised for his speech in a number of corners and his remarks were not absent of compassion or consideration. But if the drug testing line becomes actual policy it will represent a disturbing continuation of the recent past.

Providing incentives for the unemployed can have positive financial and social consequences. Testing them for drugs and alcohol is a bit of fun for those who would baulk at the idea of the same income test being applied to them.

Forcing people to face destitution and demanding ever-greater control over their lives is no way to help them out of poverty.

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Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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