Have You Tried Not Being poor?: Cognitive dissonance in twenty-first century social policy

The new federal Labor government was heralded as a new beginning for Australia—an era of ‘no one left behind’. A year on from Anthony Albanese’s election victory, though, the global economy continues to sour. Domestically, the housing crisis repeatedly seems to be at its zenith, only to get worse. The poverty crisis facing people on the lowest incomes has morphed into a cost of living crisis affecting those much further up the income scale, but those of us who were already financially worst off are still hardest hit. Mainstream media, once a friend to landlords and homeowners, is turning its lens on greedy landlords and shocking living conditions endured by tenants. Outlets from the ABC to The Australian offer ‘tips and tricks’ to help people budget their way out of cost increases they can’t absorb. As with COVID, we’re told we’re all in this together.

How does this compare to previous economic upheavals? The 2020 pandemic downturn, the Global Financial Crisis of the 2000s, the 1990s recession we had to have, 1970s stagflation—crisis in capitalism is nothing new. But today there is record low unemployment. Can we not just weather it and move on?

The difference is our threadbare social safety net.

Running on fumes

Income support payments that were inadequate in the Howard era only got worse in the decade before COVID. They are now patently unliveable, and increasingly inaccessible due to restrictive eligibility and participation requirements. At the same time, public housing has been decimated, and public health, education and transport are all becoming more expensive, while their quality erodes. The consequence is that when the present crisis hit, the poorest people in the community had nothing to fall back on. Whether trapped in the welfare system, working in low-paid jobs or barred from accessing income support altogether, people in poverty are all fodder for the RBA’s outdated monetary policy and the austerity fetish of the political class. This isn’t new, but something else is: the experience of the pandemic, which rehumanised people in poverty.

When COVID hit, then prime minister Scott Morrison saw the thoroughly degraded state of welfare as a major threat. He lifted JobSeeker to the poverty line and suspended work tests overnight. Unlike in 2020, however, the Albanese government says it can’t respond to today’s cost of living crisis because the budget is in ‘structural deficit’. We’re told it would be irresponsible to ensure that people on low incomes can afford to eat and pay their bills by lifting welfare payments to the poverty line (though, as they’re keen to remind us, they’re happy to look at it in the next budget). We’re told it’s impossible to directly acquire and build public homes; the market must be trusted to deliver.

We’re told this desperate situation can be attributed to the ‘lost decade’ of Coalition government. We’re told Labor has a plan for those of us sacrificed at the economic altar. But what does their track record say about whether there is cause for hope?

Sleight of hand

Albanese didn’t offer people in poverty much ahead of the election, flatly refusing to commit to the most urgently needed change: increasing Centrelink payments. But Labor knew the community expected a kinder alternative to the Coalition when it came to supporting poor, disabled and homeless folks. To thread this needle they made two promises: establishing a Robodebt royal commission and abolishing compulsory cashless welfare.

On closer examination, it’s hard not to feel that Labor pursued a cruel strategy of using weasel words to give false hope to welfare recipients for electoral gain. In the wake of his 2019 election loss, capitalising on years of work by grass-roots activists, now Government Services minister Bill Shorten began to wield Robodebt as a political weapon. Public sentiment and Shorten’s rhetoric are on the side of justice for welfare recipients. But the real problem with Robodebt was never an algorithm, or income averaging; it was the human cost of extracting money from people who couldn’t afford to live. Unfortunately, the minister has refused to adopt proposals that would genuinely protect us from harm. One of his first acts was to make it clear that he intends to be every bit the welfare cop, ramping up aggressive compliance activity and implying that one in five people on JobSeeker is overpaid. This means only one thing: more debts. Shorten’s department will pursue 1.8 million debts for nearly $5 billion in so-called debt dating back to 1979. But don’t worry, this time it’s lawful.

Policy-makers have been tasked with tinkering around the edges to make it seem they’re creating a fair system. The first tweak was an end to the use of private debt collectors, who were responsible for all of 4 per cent of funds recouped. All the while, Shorten’s National Disability Insurance Agency is deploying tactics refined under Robodebt against disabled people. Participant plans are being slashed only for the cuts to be overturned when challenged at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. So far, however, only 251 of 10,621 NDIS matters have proceeded to a hearing, handily avoiding too much scrutiny of the agency’s internal decisions.

In practice, little is changing for those of us caught in the web of complex reporting requirements, strict eligibility criteria and Centrelink errors that end in overpayments being labelled ‘debts’. Little is changing for those subjected to the racist Intervention-era BasicsCard either, or in the government’s attitude to controlling people through cashless welfare.

In the lead-up to the election, Labor ran a scare campaign disingenuously drumming up fear among age pensioners and claiming the Coalition would force them on to the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) even though the program has always targeted First Nations people. They promised to abolish the CDC and said all income control programs would be made voluntary. They made a great show of ‘abolishing’ the CDC, passing a bill to remove compulsory participation in so-called trial sites from October 2022. Pushback from advocates about the exclusion of the BasicsCard from this process was met with lame excuses about ‘consultation’, despite affected communities in the Northern Territory resisting the card since its introduction as part of the Howard government’s 2007 Intervention into Aboriginal communities. And just a few months later, Labor was back with new income control legislation—but not the promised changes that would make it voluntary. Instead, the proposed Enhanced Income Management program entrenches the practice of controlling welfare recipients’ spending and their lives. The bill now before parliament is eerily similar to the one the Coalition attempted to pass in December 2020, which Labor voted against. It expands the minister’s power to designate new locations without the need for new legislation. It allows people to be placed on the card compulsorily, for the same reasons as the BasicsCard.

In short, it’s little more than a rebrand.

And what about all that talk of making income control voluntary? The bill suggests that ‘voluntary’ means just what it did under the Coalition: that decision-makers within a community are able to opt into a program imposed on those with the least power and resources to fight back.

Suckers for punishment

Since the 1990s, punitive compulsion has become a hallmark of our social security system, with the most perverse harm being caused by ‘mutual’ obligations—activities roughly 1 million people must undertake. The government now spends $4 billion a year on punitive (un)employment services. Labor voted for, and then inherited, the Coalition government’s attempted revamp of the mainstream program now known as Workforce Australia. The program reproduces and intensifies the harmful practices of its predecessors, but with an added panopticon layer. Activity monitoring has been further outsourced, from the private providers paid billions a year to deliver the system to those trapped in it, who must navigate a complex and badly designed system in order to collect and log enough points to get their meagre fortnightly income support.

Since the Workforce Australia program began, there has been a stream of reports showing perverse and unfair outcomes, provider error and mistreatment, and an extraordinary number of penalties being applied and then later reversed. People have been told to travel hundreds of kilometres to attend useless appointments and been unable to log activities like job applications due to system errors, and one person was even mocked for attempting suicide.

When unemployed advocates called for penalties to be removed as a protective measure, Labor instead announced a parliamentary inquiry for a review of employment services—a review they were legislatively required to conduct. The review has provided insight into the minds behind employment services policy. ‘Welfare dependency’ has been a recurring theme, exposing how deeply the debunked concept is still embedded in bureaucrats’ decisions and their advice to ministers. Failed programs built on vibes and prejudice are now viewed as elemental.

To be or not to be deserving

A casual observer might look at the gap between our lived reality and the political response to it and see a recipe for electoral suicide. Even Labor true believers who stuck by the party through the worst of its Rudd–Gillard social policy reforms are increasingly in disbelief, wondering how and why today’s leaders are refusing to act with compassion for those in poverty. To them it seems that the divergence between Labor’s values and Labor’s practice has come suddenly. But the decimation of the welfare state has been a decades-long project undertaken by the same people who benefitted from it. Those reaching adulthood in the 1970s and 80s had free access to education and were able to enter a housing market on the verge of a revolution that would see their personal fortunes explode. They took over the castle and pulled up the drawbridge.

Throughout the 1990s, the humble ‘dole bludger’, a term conjured up to convey the image of surfers too lazy to get a job, was recast as a ‘welfare dependent’. This was not an accident; nor was it unique to Australia. The demonisation of welfare recipients was the necessary product of an ideological project that wedded liberal economics with conservative moralism.

We’re to believe that those who peddle the myth of welfare dependency don’t hate the poor, they just want the best for us—and so, like Victorian-era paupers, we cannot be permitted to sit on our hands. The brutal privatised employment services system we endure today emerged from work tests introduced in the Hawke–Keating era to coincide with the erosion of the Commonwealth Employment Service, which was then fully dismantled by Howard, and the concept of ‘welfare dependency’ was fully brought to life by the Australian Institute of Family Studies in the late 1990s. It underpins the paternalistic attitudes that justified forced labour programs like Work for the Dole, the decision to limit parenting payments to people with children under eight and the myriad of punitive policy choices inflicted on people in poverty ever since. By the Rudd–Gillard era, ‘welfare dependency’ was embedded in the psyche of policy-makers, and dramatic eligibility changes for disability payments have led to hundreds of thousands of disabled people struggling to survive on JobSeeker long-term. By the advent of Abbott, this level of cruelty was baked into the system. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that today’s leaders feel secure in continuing it. They have already continued it by voting repeatedly for harsh Coalition welfare policies throughout the ‘lost decade’.

Unresolved tension

The Albanese government set itself a clear benchmark for success in the eyes of the people who voted it in: no one left behind.

As the cost of living crisis reached new heights in late 2022, Labor responded to pressure to increase welfare payments by establishing an ‘independent’ committee chaired by former Labor Social Services minister Jenny Macklin to investigate economic exclusion. Two weeks before the federal budget, on the day the committee’s report was released, the government dismissed out of hand its top recommendation: to substantially increase JobSeeker and related working age payments.

The public outcry over this refusal to commit to what is obvious and necessary seemed to take the people in power by surprise. In the lead-up to the 2023 budget presented on 9 May, piecemeal changes were floated in the media, targeting sympathy-engendering groups like single parents and people over fifty-five to see if the community could be mollified with policies designed to leverage the narrative of deserving and undeserving poor.

At the time of writing, the JobSeeker payment is $250 a week below the poverty line. On budget night, we learned that hundreds of thousands of people on the JobSeeker, Youth Allowance and Austudy payments would receive a pitiful $20 a week ‘increase’, to commence in September 2023- not even enough to make up for the cost increases we have absorbed in the past six months. Parents with children between eight and fourteen years of age will move from JobSeeker to the Parenting Payment.

In all, there were 2.5 million people relying on working-age Centrelink payments living below the poverty line before the budget was handed down. After it, there are still 2.5 million people on payments below the poverty line. The government is leaving millions behind, sacrificing the lives of people on the lowest incomes for the sake of a budget surplus.

While major party politicians grapple with the chasm between ideology and reality, voters are hearing Greens and independent MPs state the glaringly obvious truth inconveniently exposed by the Morrison government: poverty is a policy choice.

The unanswered question is: how long before it becomes a politically untenable one?

Missing the Value of Care

Elise Klein, Jun 2021

The contemporary punitive turn in Australian social security features disinvestment from actual payments made to individuals…as well as investment in punitive mutual-obligation programs such as ParentsNext.

About the author

Jay Coonan and Kristin O’Connell

Jay Coonan and Kristin O’Connell are antipoverty activists and unwaged social policy researchers relying on the welfare system to survive. They established the Antipoverty Centre in 2021 with other welfare recipients to counter problems with politicians, academics, paid advocates and others in the political class speaking over and making harmful decisions on behalf of people they purport to represent.

More articles by Jay Coonan and Kristin O’Connell

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Thankyou for an accurate description of the people who run this country . its a shameful mess that wont be forgotten by any of us .

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