Work to be done

Here is a simple but little acknowledged fact: the poor are not the problem with the welfare system. 

But it is the poor who would be most harshly affected by much of what Social Services Minister Christian Porter laid out in his address to the National Press Club this week.

Take his position on the Newstart Allowance, the poverty-line payment made to the newly unemployed.

It remains the government’s policy to refuse this support to all young people for an arbitrary period of four weeks. This is a system unknown anywhere else in the world.

The parliamentary library acknowledges as much in its budget review. “In the absence of overseas precedents,” it writes, “it is unclear what the outcomes of the measure will be.” 

And: “There is no substantive evidence to suggest that young Australians lack the will to work. A number of surveys of young people show that a majority want to work or to work more hours, but face a number of barriers to their doing so.”

This measure will most affect the poor. It is measure that risks forcing into homelessness any young person without a family they can rely upon to house them for a month without money. 

Again, the parliamentary library’s budget review: “National Welfare Rights Network Policy Officer, Gerard Thomas, has insisted that the measure would ‘lead to greater levels of welfare dependency, not less’.”

And elsewhere in the same paper: “The main argument that has been raised against the proposed waiting period is that … four weeks without access to income support would still place many young people in severe financial hardship.”

But the government sticks to it, without evidence. It is a punitive fiction, part of the distraction of welfare reform. Much easier to demonise the out-of-work young than middle-class families receiving unsustainable payments or to address inequality in the taxing of superannuation for the very rich.

And so this is Porter’s position – one of challenge and subsistence, of a system designed to be unkind, except that it is so subjective as to not really be designed at all. “I would actually put to you that the fact that people who find it challenging to subsist off Newstart…” he said, “might actually speak to the fact that that’s one of the design points of the system that’s working okay because the encouragement is there to move off those payments quickly.”

Youth unemployment remains stubbornly high, more than twice the broader average. All research suggests this is about opportunity rather than will. In certain areas, almost one in three young people is unemployed. Nationally, the figure exceeds quarter of a million people.

This is a serious problem. But it will not be addressed through punishment. It will not be addressed if the minister responsible remains convinced that the key barrier to employment is preparedness to work. 

Porter spoke enthusiastically of “tailored metrics” and “a very significant, maybe close to revolutionary, new direction in welfare reform”. 

But there is nothing revolutionary, or even close to revolutionary, in blaming young people for a lack of employment opportunities. There is nothing tailored about arbitrarily withholding support.

Until this government engages with all forms of entitlement, especially those of privilege, there will be no “new direction” and nothing that resembles “reform” in any meaningful sense. Instead there will be the same demonisation of the same group, the one who can least respond to it: the poor.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2016 as "Work to be done".

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