Currently there is little consensus about the purpose of the Australian welfare state even though we spend over $170 billion dollars per year.
Some construct the welfare state as aiming to promote fairness and equity, and empower disadvantaged people. Others identify a community responsibility to assist those who are less fortunate, but are mainly concerned with protecting social cohesion. Some argue that welfare programs should prioritize controlling and disciplining the poor as a warning to the mainstream to remain economically self-reliant.
That 3rd view, which is often called neoliberalism, is highly influential as reflected in the current Parliamentary inquiry into Intergenerational Welfare Dependence.
Welfare dependence is a popular term often used in the News Corp media to depict the increasing (and prolonged) financial reliance of individuals or families on income support payments for their primary source of income. Yet in the real world there is no serious evidence that such an indeterminate psychological concept of illness or addiction exists.Rather, it assumes an ideal world in which anyone who wants work can find work at a living wage, and all citizens enjoy equal opportunities from the time of birth. In contrast, the real world is based on social and economic inclusion and exclusion, and fundamental inequities. The American political scientist, Professor Sanford Schram, Professor of Political Science at Hunter College in New York, has recently published a detailed book chapter titled "Neoliberalizing the welfare state"which exposes the absurdity of this term being used in an attempt to medicalize a debate that to the contrary reflects deep seated political and ideological contention around the causes of social disadvantage.
In fact, what we are arguably talking about here is chronic material disadvantage. That is why some individuals or families have an increased and prolonged reliance on income support payments for their primary source of income. The recent ACOSS report on Poverty confirmed that in 2015-16, 3.05 million people or 13.2 per cent of the population, were estimated to live below the poverty level.
On the basis of years of research with disadvantaged populations – particularly young people who grow up in out of home care who are a particularly vulnerable group due to the failure of all Australian States and Territories to currently provide ongoing support once they turn 18 years of age – I would argue that outcomes for such groups reflect the connection between two key factors: one is their Individual Agency or resilience (within a social context), and the second being the availability or otherwise of positive relationships via what we call Social Capital through professional and informal support networks.
Those young people and families who overcome disadvantaged backgrounds mostly do so because individuals and/or groups in their local community provide support that gives them opportunities to access education, training, employment, and other social and economic resources that otherwise would not have occurred, and enhances rather than limits their individual choice and agency including particularly their capacity to participate in the social and economic mainstream.
Before critiquing the neoliberal approach, I want, however, to diverge for a minute here, and talk about some of the specific ways in which this labelling of individuals as hopeless or helpless is impacting on drug and alcohol service clients.
Firstly, there is the long-standing targeting since 2007 of people allegedly involved in alcohol and drug abuse by the introduction of various compulsory income management measures including most recently Cashless Debit Cards affecting over 27,000 people to date.
Secondly, there is the removal of exemptions from mutual obligation requirements for people involved in drug and alcohol use, and the associated tightening of reasonable excuses for non-compliance due to drug and alcohol use. These measures are intended to reduce substance use barriers to job search.
Thirdly, there is the introduction of the two year drug testing trial aimed at 5,000 new recipients of Newstart Allowance and Youth Allowance across three locations in NSW (Canterbury-Bankstown), QLD (Logan) and WA (Mandurah). The trial aims to address substance use issues that act as barriers to employment, and includes the planned placement of those who test positive on income management for 24 months, and the referral of those who have two positive tests for medical treatment. If this trial is genuinely about helping vulnerable people to access health treatment services, then I am curious why the trial only applies to illicit drug use/abuse; and does not also extend to those who are applying for Parenting Payment, DSP, or even the age pension, or for that matter many people in full-time employment. To be sure, there is statistical evidence that unemployed people are more likely to use illicit drugs, but there is only limited evidence on cause and effect.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
14 posts so far.