The social security system that Australia originally set up to curb poverty is now only making it worse, and it’s causing negative health outcomes for struggling Australians, Elise Klein writes.
It’s well established that Newstart and its related payments – such as youth allowance – are woefully inadequate for the people relying on them. Currently, Newstart payments equate to roughly $50 per day, far below what is reasonably required to cover housing, food, clothing, and transport. This is forcing many people on Newstart to live well below the poverty line – 55 per cent according to research by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS).
The inadequacy of payments is made worse by welfare conditionality, which adds more stress and anxiety to people’s lives on welfare. People on Newstart are subject to various punitive programs such as Work for the Dole and the Community Development Program (CDP), which mainly targets First Nations people.
These programs attribute unemployment and poverty as the fault of the individual and use ‘mutual obligation’ to force compliance.
There are other welfare conditionality programs too, such as income management like the Cashless Debit Card, which can put conditions on how people spend their social security payments. Most of these programs are trialled on First Nations communities initially, and then expanded to the non-First Nations poor.
Despite billions of dollars spent on setting up and administering welfare conditionality programs, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that welfare conditionality doesn’t work.
People on Work for the Dole, for instance, are asked to undertake menial and pointless tasks just to fill in their days. If they don’t turn up to an activity, or miss an appointment, their pay can be docked or even suspended.
The urban version of Work for the Dole is harsh, but communities living in remote Australia have had to endure the punitive CDP since 2014, experiencing an even more cruel and ineffective version of the same idea. The CDP targets First Nations people specifically, and it punishes people for breaches at much higher rates than those – mainly non-Indigenous people – subjected to the standard Work for the Dole program.
Welfare conditionality stigmatises the ‘undeserving poor’. Poor people are labelled as non-contributors to society and are subjected to unfounded accusations of laziness, unwillingness to work, or addictions to alcohol, drugs, or gambling.
This stigma levelled against the poor obscures the failure of the labour market to provide full and dignified employment for all. ACOSS estimates that for every job vacancy in Australia advertised, there are eight people looking for a job or more work, and twice that number if those people changing jobs are included, compounding the stress of looking for work.
The Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union also found that as of December 2018, there was just one job available per 15.57 job seekers. This reflects how the old ideal of a stable, permanent, full-time job is increasingly out of the reach of many Australians – especially young workers, even those with degrees. As documented by the Australia Institute, less than half of Australian workers now fill one of those ‘standard’ positions.
Another huge issue is underemployment – today, about 1.1 million Australians would take more hours if they could get them. This is partly explained by changes in the market, such as the gig economy and automation, but also failures in macro-economic policy globally and nationally since neoliberalism was mainstreamed.
The system is also leaving behind people who simply cannot work – they may have an illness, a disability, caring responsibilities, and parenting responsibilities, yet are not eligible under other program’s stringent conditions for acceptance. They then find themselves on Newstart.
The low level of Newstart and welfare conditionality both increase the risk of already vulnerable people having poor health outcomes.
Living below the poverty line reduces people’s ability to afford a balanced diet, medicine, or appropriate accommodation, and often forces them into making risky health decisions.
Coupled with the stress of jumping through the tedious hoops set by Centrelink, long waiting times to have a call answered, menial work for the dole activities, dehumanisation, and the tiny size of the payment is putting the health of people taking state payments further at risk.
Research has shown that being poor means that compared to the most advantaged people in Australia, you are 2.6 times more likely to have diabetes, 2.3 times more likely to not complete a drug prescription because of cost, and 2.1 times more likely to die of potentially avoidable causes. If you are a First Nations person, the effect of poverty on your life is even worse, and most people on Newstart are living under the poverty line.
This isn’t the only evidence. Research from Monash University found that people on Newstart are 6.8 more likely to describe their health as ‘poor’ than wage earners.
What I am outlining here can be described as conditions of lethality in that they contribute towards what Lauren Berlant a ‘slow death’ – the “physical wearing out of a population and the deterioration of people”. The punitive nature, coupled with the low level of Newstart, is doing this to people in Australia.
A slow death is often overlooked by both policy and the public because death comes gradually, and often through a variety of factors developing within conditions of lethality. This is a worrying trend. The social security system was set up to help people avoid poverty, distress, and death, not push them towards it.
Even worse, this is all by design – these conditions have all been created, maintained and defended by our governments. The poor have become the scapegoat for our failures, and now their lives are at risk for it.