The many failures of our wild welfare regime

Oct 24, 2017 by

Every day, the Kafkaesque nightmare that is Australia’s welfare system takes another wild turn.

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, on ABC's Lateline program.It’s hard to succinctly describe the many cruel failures of policy that have taken root when meanwhile the job market is calcifying. Around the country, workforces are becoming increasingly casualised, and underemployment is at a record high at 8.7 per cent (ABS). A recent report from Anglicare Australia found that five jobseekers are competing for each available entry-level position.

And yet the government’s welfare strategy is becoming even more punitive. The cashless welfare card which quarantines 80 per cent of a Newstart recipient’s income and cannot be used to purchase alcohol or to gamble recently hit Bundaberg. Human Services Minister Alan Tudge says it’s an incentive to help people find work.

Like many regional centres, Bundaberg has higher unemployment and fewer job opportunities than its urban counterparts. But no one has been able to explain how restricting the sale of alcohol to unemployed young people will get them into jobs that don’t exist.

While I was there writing a Saturday Paper story, I spoke to people struggling to get even physically taxing, short-term work like fruit picking (an industry notorious for extreme exploitation). They were not welfare dependent but desperate to get off it.

During an interview for ABC Wide Bay radio, in response to criticism around the decision to expand the program into Bundaberg, federal MP for the area, Keith Pitt, did acknowledge the complexity of unemployment, and cited incoming infrastructure funding for the area. But he always brought the focus back to people’s failure to be employed, to be good parents, to spend their money correctly. How else could the introduction of the cashless welfare card be justified?

An earlier incarnation of the Indue cashless welfare card, the even more restrictive Basics Card, was rolled out in Aboriginal communities by the Howard government in 2007 as part of the oppressive NT Intervention. A study showed it had no positive impacts on people’s behaviour, and even made people more dependent on welfare. Many reported that it made their lives worse.

“It’s as if the belief that unemployment is caused by people playing video games and smoking weed makes us feel inoculated from the reality that the forces that get and keep us in a job are largely out of our hands.”

But there’s much political capital to be gained for such dehumanising measures from voters who could never imagine that they might also be unemployed one day. An August ReachTel Poll showed 68 per cent of people surveyed supported drug testing for welfare recipients, a program being rolled out in three trial locations in January next year. This is despite significant criticism from experts, and no evidence to support the effectiveness of such a program in reducing or even identifying substance abuse.

It’s as if the belief that unemployment is caused by people playing video games and smoking weed makes us feel inoculated from the reality that the forces that get and keep us in a job are largely out of our hands.

Unemployment can isolate people from normal social support networks, and comes with an obvious financial burden as well as an increased risk of suicide. Our lives are heavily structured around going to work each day. The loss of routine and of a feeling of productivity can be devastating, especially for people managing mental illness.

Increasing the feelings of shame of being unemployed and restricting freedoms doesn’t create more jobs and only grinds down a vulnerable group who are subsisting on a meagre payment that’s half of the weekly Australian minimum wage.

But the government is yet to show any meaningful concern over the significant risks of these draconian welfare policies. Malcolm Turnbull called cashless welfare ‘an exercise in practical love’. And in a 2016 policy speech, Tudge warned against the dangers of wanting to be a caring society in relation to unemployment — ‘we may have reached a point where we have taken our good intentions too far.’

The opaque, and some would say deliberately error-ridden robodebt scheme shows no sign of abating, despite a senate inquiry calling for the system to be suspended until issues are solved. At least one person, Rhys Cauzzo, has taken his own life after being pursued by debt collectors for a Centrelink debt.

And 18 months ago, 18 year old Josh Park-Fing died from head injuries when he fell from a trailer during a Work for the Dole placement. The government has refused to release the outcome of the internal review into the accident.

All of these measures send a very clear message: if you are on unemployment benefits, you are guilty. And you are disposable.

Source: Eureka Street

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