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Trials of the cashless welfare card are effectively removing an escape path for women who are trying to flee violent and abusive relationships. By Jane Caro.

The effects on women of cashless welfare

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert in the senate chamber.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

Mahalia’s ex-partner controlled her finances. This is not uncommon. If she asked for $20 to spend, he would ask her a hundred questions. She would have to prove why she wanted it, what it was for. “Then I had to prove to him what I had spent it on.”

It was part of a violent relationship, one Mahalia finally ended. “Having to ask permission to spend your own money is abusive control.” Now she is on the government-mandated cashless welfare card. She says it treats her the same way, “like you don’t deserve the money either”.

The cashless welfare card, sometimes called the cashless debit card, Indue card or income management, has been trialled in various regional areas since 2007. It corrals 80 per cent of a person’s Centrelink payment onto a debit card for approved spending, leaving only 20 per cent for discretionary spending.

Anyone in a trial area can end up on the cashless card. The so-called “trigger” payments include the single parenting payment, which people fleeing family violence often receive. In many cases, those trying to escape a situation leave with little or nothing. If these women live in Bundaberg, Ceduna, Goldfields, East Kimberley or Hervey Bay, they are likely to find they have 80 per cent of their income managed for them.

Tempest, a First Nations woman, falls into this category. Her ex, she says, “always told me what I could and couldn’t buy – just like the card”. She says that for women trying to leave violent partners, the cashless card “makes escape 10 times harder, because you don’t know whether your card will be declined when you try to buy a train ticket or book a room”.

Tempest had to be aided by friends and family to escape her violent ex, ferried from house to house until she and her children eventually arrived at her mother’s place. “One thing you are afraid of is being forced on the card,” she says.

Dr Karen Williams, a psychiatrist who specialises in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and works with many women who have survived long-term abuse, says the cashless card, “mimics exactly what a financial abuser and coercive controller would do”.

Williams points out that women fleeing abuse are at high risk of poverty and homelessness, and that these things in themselves can be used as reasons to take a woman’s children. She says that the welfare system, far from supporting women to leave abusers, is “actively working to keep marginalised women in the relationship while gaslighting her by telling her she should leave”.

As the activist group No Cashless Debit Card Australia points out, the cashless welfare cards make it hard to escape because you can’t just book a night in a hotel or motel. Those venues are often licensed premises, and the card cannot be used anywhere you can buy alcohol or gamble.

In regional areas, abusers will often know where the local refuge is, leaving the women who flee unable to see it as a safe destination. Given what we know about women being at most risk when they leave an abuser, this is not an irrational fear.

No Cashless Debit Card Australia says the card makes it harder rather than easier to perform all sorts of everyday transactions. They say it makes it difficult to pay rent because many landlords will no longer accept the cards, which have had issues when used to process rent. Buying children’s shoes is almost impossible in some areas. New shoes are too expensive, but the card does not allow you to buy from second-hand shops or internet bargain sites. It’s easy for a child to look neglected and unprotected in these situations.

“It’s hard enough for women in DV situations to get away in the first place, and then they punish us all over again for doing it,” says Sam*. “I was never on medication before this.”

Sam struggles to tell her story, at times sobbing. Her ex-partner attempted to kill her and she survived only because her eight-year-old son intervened just long enough for her to crawl to the front door and sound the alarm. Her abuser was arrested, convicted and served 10 months of a 12-month sentence. When he was released, he was bailed to their shared residence. Sam and her son had to live out of her car for three months.

Sam, who has always worked as a chef, ended up on the cashless card after she lost her most-recent job. Her ex-partner repeatedly came into the restaurant and made a scene, and so her boss dismissed her. Sam is particularly vulnerable because, as a New Zealand citizen, she is only entitled to six months’ worth of welfare support. She fully expects to be homeless soon.

Yet in the federal government’s “women’s budget” released in May, much has been made about money being spent to help women escape violent and abusive relationships. A total of $1.1 billion has been committed. Women can access a $1500 cash payment when they leave, and $3500 in goods and services. They can also access a $2000 no-interest loan. All of this is positive, but as soon as these same women go on the single-parent payment, and live in the wrong postcode, they trigger the cashless system. Once they are on it, it is almost impossible to get off.

Kerryn is a mother of five and describes herself as technically homeless. Currently, she and her children are crammed into her mother’s three-bedroom house, along with her mother and her mother’s partner. Kerryn is trying to get off the cashless card, but her application has been refused. The reason given is that too many of her transactions have been declined. Kerryn explains that, unknown to her, auto-payments were trying to draw on her card in her off-payment week. Declined transactions are not listed on the card’s statement and can occur, as they did with Kerryn, without the cardholder’s knowledge. Worse, when she asked to see the declined transactions, she was told they were confidential.

At the same time as these issues are being raised, governments in Australia are following the lead of England, Wales and Scotland in seeking to outlaw coercive control. Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and New South Wales are all currently considering such legislation. Coercive control is the most common factor in relationships that end with a woman being killed. The NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team found that – between 2017 and 2019 – 77 of 78 perpetrators used coercive control before they killed their partners. Coercive control includes isolating women, restricting their movements and micromanaging their finances.

There is a contradiction here. Australia is spending $1.1 billion to help women escape violent and abusive relationships, the country is moving towards legislating against coercive control. Yet if a woman lives in a cashless welfare trial site and manages to leave her partner, she can find the abuse replicated by the very government that claims to want to help her.

Considering these trials have been running for 14 years with little evidence that they achieve their original purpose – preventing welfare recipients spending their money on alcohol, drugs or gambling – it’s hard to see why so many vulnerable women are still being forced to use the cards.

Terese Edwards, chief executive of the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children, says women in this situation feel as if they are “tiptoeing through quicksand”. She points out that the rigidity and one-size-fits-all nature of the cashless card gives a woman “no flexibility, no room for any bumps in the road”.

Greens senator Rachel Siewert, who has fought against the cards since their inception, says: “These people have survived trauma and got their autonomy back, which is really hard to do. And then they are stripped of that autonomy by the government.”

Kerryn puts it another way: “I got a little sniff of freedom and then it was taken away.” 

* Names have been changed.

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 19, 2021 as "Tiptoeing through quicksand".

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Jane Caro is a Sydney-based novelist, writer and documentary maker.