Shortly before the cashless debit card was scrapped last year, Liberal member of parliament Rowan Ramsey urged its retention. He “hadn’t seen” the Australian National Audit Office report that described it in damning terms, he said, “but I would be interested as to whether they’ve taken general public opinion into play”. His comments perfectly captured how normal it has become for welfare policy to be driven not by evidence but by attempts to win votes through cheap appeals to an imagined public.
Designed to prevent benefit recipients from spending their money on alcohol and gambling, the scheme sequestered 80 per cent of an individual’s income onto a card provided by Indue, a private contractor. Indigenous Australians were vastly overrepresented in the card’s pilot schemes, which covered fewer than 17,000 people. In Who Cares?, Eve Vincent insists the scheme had a bigger meaning, namely “the Australian welfare state intensifying its transition to a more disciplinarian guise, marking an ever-diminishing offer of care to those in need”.
Vincent’s approach is twofold: to let the subjects of her study speak for themselves, and then to place their experiences in the context of history and contemporary welfare discourse. In a poignant reflection on her scholarly practice, Vincent acknowledges that anthropology can “represent unwanted scrutiny” in parallel to the state’s surveillance of benefit recipients, “informing a degree of holding back” on her part. She still occasionally romanticises her interviewees but most apparent is her ear for the speech patterns of everyday philosophy. “They pulled the blanket over everyone,” says one interviewee in Ceduna.
Alongside the card, Vincent profiles ParentsNext, a federal program designed to get parents back into work, which similarly dehumanised its users through distant and condescending bureaucracy. Her portraits of single mothers juggling the complexity of family life are as affecting as her stories of the scheme’s distant bureaucracy are damning. Svetlana, a recovered drug addict, “talked of a raw determination to keep her only baby alive”. Ella, who secured a job as a teaching assistant through a friend and exited ParentsNext, received a letter telling her the scheme had found her a job and instructing her to attend work.
Far from caring for its citizens as it once promised, Vincent argues that the modern Australian state instead fails to recognise care as labour at all and in fact punishes those who make it their vocation. The Indue card might now be history but, as Vincent notes, “a mean-spirited, conditional and punitive welfare system remains in place”. Turning the tide will require either politicians with the courage to take on decades of divide-and-rule conditioning or a mass movement to force their hands.
MUP, 192pp, $33
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2023 as "Who Cares? Life on Welfare in Australia".
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