Eve Vincent, Who Cares? Life on Welfare in Australia, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2023
The grief, despair and frustration of people incurring the wrath of the Australian welfare state was on agonising display at the recent hearings of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme. We heard from mothers whose children died by suicide, burdened by the state’s attempts to recoup false debts. Some people spoke of contemplating ending their lives to escape debts they knew they could never repay, while others spoke of their determination to never again access government support payments in order to avoid the label of ‘dole bludger’. These testimonies contrasted sharply with the indifference, denials and obfuscation that characterised much of the evidence of the public servants and elected representatives who contrived Robodebt.
It is timely, therefore, that Eve Vincent asksin her highly readable book, Who Cares?. Vincent’s ethnographic accounts are important contrasts to the otherwise faceless, gargantuan welfare state, hungry for compliance and system ‘integrity’ for the benefit of taxpayers. As Vincent intends, these stories enable readers to get close to lives shaped by dispossession, poverty and unexpected interruptions to middle-class life courses. The stories reveal what it is like to survive under the punitive weight of the Australian welfare state, and in particular the Cashless Debit Card in Ceduna, South Australia and ParentsNext Australia-wide.
By way of background, the Cashless Debit Card was a form of welfare quarantining in effect until March 2023, whereby some social security recipients—disproportionately First Nations people—had between 50 and 90 per cent of their income forcibly paid into a special account. The quarantined funds could not be spent on prohibited items such as alcohol. Now called a SmartCard, the card remains compulsory for people on income support payments in the Northern Territory. Some people in Cape York are also mandatorily subject to the new card, while in several other locations in Australia people can volunteer to have a proportion of their income support payments made on it.
ParentsNext originated as a trial in 2012, in which teenage parents and ‘jobless families’ in ten locations were required to meet ‘participation requirements’ in exchange for their payments. The program was expanded nationally from 2018 and is still in place, even though in 2021 a parliamentary committee on human rights recommended that it be made voluntary. Both the Cashless Debit Card and ParentsNext are forms of conditional welfare policies: the threat of income support being withdrawn is used to achieve behavioural change among people who access payments.i The design of conditions within the two programs differs, however. People on ParentsNext are required to participate in weekly approved activities, and failure to do so can result in payments being suspended. Income support payments for Cashless Debit Card/SmartCard holders are pre-emptively quarantined and restrictions placed on what funds can be spent and how. This apparent intensification of conditional welfare prompts the question: is punishment the point of the Australian social security system?
No matter someone’s work history, their service to family and community or their ability to manage their household budgets, if they had a Cashless Debit Card, most of their income was restricted. Vincent tells the story of June, a grandmother and foster carer who nursed her mother until her death. Anguished and finding it difficult to get paid work at age 60, June was issued the card. She felt that all of her years of care for others were demeaned by the state assuming that she needed its paternal hand to help her to manage her money. Likewise, Gladys, formerly paid as a cleaner, stopped work to care for her bedridden and terminally ill husband, daily changing his sheets and cooking his meals. Exhausted and in grief after her husband’s death, Gladys was moved off a carer payment and onto unemployment support, 80 per cent of which was quarantined on the card. Stories like June’s and Gladys’s emphatically make visible the labour of care that is otherwise negated by the state.
Eloise’s story highlights how deeply pathologised the contested concept of welfare ‘dependence’ has become. In a society that reifies self-sufficiency and loathes reliance on others, Eloise reflects to Vincent that there’s ‘no room socially’ii to choose to live on social security payments in order to stay at home to care for one’s own preschool child. In contrast, doing that same job for someone else’s children at a child-care centre for a low wage is socially sanctioned. So potent is ‘intrapersonal stigma’, which is internalised by the person who is shamed,iii that Vincent observes ‘distancing’ among at least one of the people she interviews (this was evident among some Robodebt victims at the Royal Commission hearings, too). By distancing, people discursively separate themselves from ‘illegitimate’ recipients of public support. There’s a related observation: middle-class beneficiaries of tax concessions and childcare subsidies are not shamed (or surveilled). The deliberate shaming of ‘welfare recipients’, rather than middle-class beneficiaries of public funds, is the work of structural stigmaiv in maintaining and reproducing patterns of inequality.
Stories of care are a rebuttal to government assertions that people who access support payments are ‘unoccupied; their days otherwise fallow, their hours ready to be filled with others’ plans for their time’v. Instead, people on the Cashless Debit Card and ParentsNext, already engaged in the labour of care, are weighed by administrative burden’: the financial, compliance and psychological costs of accessing public services.vi These absurdist demands range from a requirement to travel two hours to attend a five- to ten-minute appointment, a need to answer phone calls from case managers at rigidly specific times, a need to take leave from paid work to phone Indue (the private company contracted to manage the Cashless Debit Card) when the card was faulty, repeating personal circumstances to six separate case managers, swapping Cashless Debit Cards back and forth with other cardholders to pay bills. Megan, juggling single parenting and a casual TAFE teaching contract, enrolled in an aromatherapy course not because of an interest in the subject but because by doing so she could escape the ParentsNext reporting regime.
Through the stories of people caring for themselves, their children, families and communities on meagre income support payments, Vincent centres the idea of care. This foregrounding demands that we reconsider the very purpose of a ‘welfare’ system: what would result if we accepted our dependency on one another? What if we had a system of care that ‘foster[s] autonomy and facilitate[s] self-realisation’vii? What follows the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme may offer an opportunity to refashion a system to care for one other. The Commission was set up, in part, to recommend ways of preventing any future relevant failures of public administration. Anticipating real change, we may draw on Chantal Mouffe’s idea of a ‘solidaristic economy’ in which work of social utility outside of market logics is financed publicly, along with a citizens’ income set at a guaranteed minimum.viii But more than that, we should envision a system that redistributes wealth to people who have been expropriated—dispossessed of their land, oppressed, and unwaged.ix These are many of the people who told their stories to Vincent.
i Beth Watts and Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Welfare Conditionality, New York: Routledge, 2018.
ii Eve Vincent, Who Cares? Life on Welfare in Australia, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2023,p. 106.
iii Rebecca De Souza, Feeding the Other: Whiteness, Privilege, and Neoliberal Stigma in Food Pantries, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2019.
iv De Souza, Feeding the Other.
v Vincent, Who Cares?,p. 120.
vi Pamela Herd and Donald P. Moynihan, Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means, Chicago: Russell Sage Foundation, 2019, p. 13.
vii Vincent, Who Cares?, p. 124.
viii Chantal Mouffe, ‘The Radical Centre: A Politics Without Adversary’, in James Martin (ed.), Chantal Mouffe: Hegemony, Radical Democracy, and the Political, London: Routledge, 2013, pp 157–166.
ix Elise Klein, ‘Towards a Reparative Welfare State’, New Political Economy, 28(1), pp 126–141.
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.
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