Any talk about welfare reform or moving people off welfare usually triggers a fiery response. There will be accusations of unfairness and claims of hurting the most vulnerable. Bill Shorten recently talked about this government's “attack on welfare” and said it “distorts the domestic destiny of hundreds of thousands of Australian families”.
Now imagine we replace the word “welfare” with the word “poverty”. What if we talked about a government engaged in “poverty reform” or wanting to “move people out of poverty”. Would we describe this as unfair or as hurting the most vulnerable? Would we describe the government as mounting an “attack on poverty” or as “distorting the domestic destiny of Australian families”?
Probably not. But a life lived dependent on welfare is actually a life lived in poverty. And the longer someone spends on welfare, the harder it becomes to escape from poverty. Getting people off welfare should be welcomed - not subject to fierce and partisan opposition.
Now I want to make it very clear that I am a strong supporter of having a welfare safety net. One of the hallmarks of modern civil society is taking care of people who are sick or vulnerable or poor or for whatever other reason can’t take care of themselves. This ethos is supported by our Christian tradition. The gospels record Jesus saying that “whatever you do for the least amongst us, you do for me.” But, I don’t believe Jesus was talking about marginalising people and entrenching them in poverty.
The problem in the modern welfare state is that welfare has gone from being temporary or exceptional to being accepted in some circles as a long term way of life. That is like accepting poverty as a lifestyle. And not just any type of poverty. Welfare is state-sponsored poverty. It’s poverty with nothing to keep people busy. It’s poverty with no motivation. It’s poverty where a person’s natural instincts to survive and aspire are dampened. It’s poverty where people begin to think there is no other option. That’s why talking about welfare reform or getting people off welfare it elicits a fear reaction amongst welfare recipients. Because it can be pretty terrifying to think that your only option might be taken away.
If you want to see what happens when we accept welfare as a long term way of life, just take a look at many Indigenous communities in remote and regional areas today. These communities are in poverty because of well-meaning but failed government policies which revolve around welfare.
Despite what some people may think, I’m no stranger to poverty. Most Aboriginal people of my generation grew up in poverty or not far above it and I was no different.
When my parents had their first child they lived on the banks of the Clarence River in a humpy. By the time I came along, 8 children later, they had purchased a small house in Grafton. It had 4 rooms - not 4 bedrooms - 4 rooms. One bedroom for my sisters, one for my parents, a kitchen/living area and a converted front porch which was the bedroom for the boys.
My mum had two more children after me. I slept in a single bed with 3 of my brothers until I was about 12. We were a family of 13 but at any given time we had up to 20 people living in the house; such as extended family members who needed to be near Grafton hospital or sick relatives whom my mother was looking after.
From time to time bills went unpaid and the utilities were cut off. We ate simple food - offal, potatoes, bread, sausages and damper fried in dripping. Meat and fruit were expensive. Chicken was a treat and we grew fruit and vegetables in the backyard. There were nights my mother skipped a meal so the rest of us could eat.
But I also grew up thinking working was normal. My grandparents had jobs, my uncles and aunts had jobs, my brothers and sisters and cousins had jobs too. Not in government-funded programs or work for the dole, but in real jobs.
My grandfather taught himself to read and write and took a job as a farm labourer. It was hard, dirty work, but it gave him independence to earn money and support his own family. My father started working as a rouseabout on a farm and then as a labourer working on the roads. He eventually became a grader driver. He helped build the Darwin to Alice Springs road during World War II. My mother worked too in between caring for infant children.
We were an example of the working poor but we were doing better than some. A grader driver was a good job for an Aboriginal man back then and my father managed to secure equal pay through his union. So my father earned a bit more than his father and he was able to buy our small house.
I see my family as being amongst the fortunate ones. We were poor but we were working and living independently. For my family members a job meant autonomy and personal pride. Their children grew up thinking it was normal to work, earn money and pay taxes. The job ethos embedded in my family provided motivation - your children could live a better life than you and your grandchildren a better life again. It gave us momentum and enabled us to move out of poverty.
Working has always been an integral to Indigenous communities just as it was for mine. In traditional communities, everybody worked. They hunted and gathered food; cared for children and elders; constructed weapons, implements, traps, shelter, boats; educated children by taking them through ceremony and teaching them songlines and oral history and managed the land.
After British colonisation Indigenous people worked both in traditional ways and for the whiteman – as stockmen, miners, domestics, trackers, soldiers. Many worked for a pittance, were “paid” with tea and damper or worked in return for being allowed to live on their own land.
In the early 1970s the laws changed to mandate equal pay for Indigenous people. This was a big win for Indigenous people but it had unintended consequences. Aboriginal people working in the pastoral and agricultural industries lost their jobs. The station owners lost their cheap source of labour and weren’t willing or able to pay them full wages.
This meant Aboriginal people could no longer stay on their lands. Indigenous people went to live into town camps and other settlements; missions became former missions. Around the same time Indigenous people gained the right to receive government welfare.
So those who lost their jobs became full time welfare recipients living away from their traditional lands on the fringes of cities and towns, in the former missions or other settlements. There they received housing and other services and welfare payments without having to do anything in return.
Aboriginal Elders coined the pejorative term “sit-down money” to describe this situation. People who had worked hard all their lives found it demoralising and insulting to lose their jobs and to be deemed unable to make a valued contribution.
Today we see the unintended results of these ultimately failed government policies. We have whole communities totally reliant on government assistance, inter-generational welfare dependence and chronic long-term unemployment.
The impact of this goes far beyond people’s immediate living conditions. People in these communities on average have significantly poorer health, higher suicide rates and are more likely to be victims of violence or sexual abuse. Many are illiterate and innumerate and school attendance can be low to non-existent. Over the last forty years the sit-down money has kept these communities in poverty and bred community dysfunction and anti-social behaviours.
This is not just an Indigenous issue. It’s a growing problem in non-Indigenous Australia too. There are parts of Australia, even some suburbs of Australia’s major cities, which are going down the same path. If you speak to job placement companies and educators in these areas they will tell you about families where children think it’s normal to finish school and go on welfare, where children think going to school is pointless because the government will give them an income anyway.
Earlier this year, I spent some time with friends in rural Tasmania. What they described of the local primary school – with high truancy and children unable to read or write – sounded very similar to the problems I’ve seen in remote Indigenous communities. The area also has high unemployment and inter-generational welfare dependency, not helped by the closure of key industries in the area like sawmilling. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has reported that half of all people living in Tasmania aged 15 to 74 are functionally illiterate and more than half are functionally innumerate.
I’m tired of hearing people attack welfare reform as something that will condemn people to poverty. Welfare recipients already live in poverty.
I’m also tired of hearing people oppose welfare reform and at the same time say we need to treat welfare-recipients with dignity. Of course we do. Allowing people to languish on welfare and dismissing them as being unable to work is not treating them with dignity. I support getting people off welfare because I want to see people lifted out of poverty. What can be more dignifying than that?
Government policy should encourage and enable people to participate in the real economy, not marginalise them.
Getting people off welfare is not as simple as taking it away. The most effective way to get people out of poverty is to get them into a job. And this requires more than sending people off to training course after training course for jobs that may not exist or telling them to look for work by responding to job ads.
We need to carve out a clear pathway from welfare to work and assist them every step of the way. The pathway needs to recognise and accommodate the reality of people’s circumstances but not assume those circumstances are an insurmountable barrier to working.
We know that moving people from welfare to sustained employment is hard and requires the investment and effort upfront. We have learned a lot about how to do this through the GenerationOne model developed to tackle Indigenous unemployment. Indigenous unemployed people are usually amongst the most disadvantaged of the unemployed with multiple and complex barriers to employment.
The model focuses on the whole person and works on all the barriers to employment, tapping into the resources and service providers who know best how to deal with each of those barriers.
There’s no point training someone in isolation from what employers are looking for. Training for training’s sake is futile. It leaves job seekers despondent and employers frustrated. Instead, people need to be trained for a job that exists and connect that training to the job, working closely with employers. The employee also needs support early on to help them stay in that job. The research shows that if a person in these circumstances is retained in a job for six months, they will most likely stay in the workforce for life. That’s why it is important when looking at welfare to work that we count only retained work as the success factor, not just work commencements.
For jobs in larger organisations, employer-directed training through Vocational Training and Employment Centres (VTECs) has proved successful in breaking through all the barriers to employment and setting people up for success in long term employment. VTECs use an integrated service approach which addresses the multiple and complex barriers to employment, training people for jobs that exist and then supporting people in those jobs so that they stay employed.
Likewise, Job Services Providers must be able to do more than send people to interviews and tick boxes. They need to be capable of intensive case management, connect individuals to the specialised help they may need to overcome barriers to employment, work with employers to identify job placements and assist employees to stay in the job.
This approach has delivered success in Indigenous employment. I believe the same type of approach can help anyone move from welfare to work.
Humans are living longer. Someone told me recently that 50% of people born in Australia today will likely live to be 100 years old. Thirty years is a long time to be on a pension. And people who become dependent on welfare from their youth will live like that for a very long time indeed.
This is unsustainable and cruel.
Poverty is not an acceptable way for anyone to live. And entrenched poverty – when the poor have no clear way out of poverty and government policy enables that to continue – is definitely not acceptable. It’s not acceptable for Indigenous people. It’s not acceptable for Tasmanians. It’s not acceptable for older people. It’s not acceptable for single parents. It’s not acceptable for the disabled. It’s not acceptable for any Australian.
Although it seems ridiculous, the process of bringing people into the mainstream and lifting them out of poverty pushes a lot of ideological buttons.
I am sick of politicians playing partisan games in this process. It is far too important to our nation, our citizens and our future that we get this right.