Dog whistle welfare

The Federal government has offered us a package of welfare changes placing new obligations on certain recipients of social security payments. The rhetoric is impeccable populism, playing into the well known negatives of welfare: single parents and those presumed to be exaggerating disabilities with murky images of young unmarried mothers with multiply fathered children and faked injuries, Mediterranean backs and other long term negative welfare myths. Of course there will be public acceptance of the changes as these groups need to be controlled and made to move off the tax payer teat.

The use of the two groups above is a cynical exercise of media manipulation of public opinion. This is clearly demonstrated by the Government’s failure to emphasise in their media another group that will also be affected. These are recipients of Parenting Payments Partnered who are usually wives of low income families with dependent children. It’s hard to sell this group to the public as transgressive because they are exactly the group the government has lauded in the past: the traditionally oriented good wives and mothers who stayed home to care for their families. They too are now going to be expected to look for jobs once their children hit school age, so they will lose the privilege of choosing to be a full time mother that John Howard has touted as a core of his social views.

The budget provisions are mean and contradictory. All recipients of parenting payments, single and partnered will be asked to look for part time work (15 hours per week) once their child reaches six. Their payments will be transferred to Newstart Plus payments which wipes out the word parenting from Centrelink’s vocabulary, once children turn six. For sole parents, this means their free area and taper are much tighter than the present income test on parenting payment and the weekly income is $20 per week less. This makes it harder for sole parents to survive on a mix of part time work and benefit, and many may have to look for longer working hours, even full time work.

There is a deep contradiction between the rhetoric about part time work and the operations of the taper and effect of loss of overall income which needs to be raised for public debate. Remembering that partnered parents also will be covered is also useful because this group were Howard’s prime constituency, but now are restricted to those with more affluent husbands. On the one hand, Family Tax benefit part B offers the no- income mothers of school age children about $40 per week, if their husband can afford to keep them at home, but now the Government tells those who are eligible for up to $180 per week parenting payment that they will have to look for part time work. Poor mothers, single and partnered, are both facing withdrawal rates of 50 cents in the $1, once they earn $32 per week.

Sole parents will lose about $20 per week if they are transferred to Newstart, and they now have a much more savage income test. This used to allow them to earn over $70 per week before losing 40 cents of each $, next year it will be the same $32 and the withdrawal rate will be 50 cents. The rates for partnered mothers is not changed but the conditions have as they too will now be work tested, ie made to look for jobs or penalised with possible loss of all income for non compliance! The only concession is a longer taper as the now 60 cents withdrawal rate for earning cuts in at $125 per week, so partnered parents will be slightly better off, but not sole parents.

If the Government were upfront about its reluctance to fund all low income households choices to stay at home with children, they would not find so much support. Picking on sole parents as the focus for the publicity feeds into existing prejudices. The proposals are singularly insulting to the many sole parents who want to work but find barriers in meeting employer needs and those of their children. Those already in the workforce, drawing part benefits to supplement low paid work may keep it but new entrants will have to comply with the tougher conditions, even if they are just going through difficult separations. Research we did a few years ago made it quite clear that most sole parents want to find work but often face serious difficulties, including lack of access to education, child care and appropriate support services.

Managing work and family needs is tough even for two parent families as there are still few employers flexible enough to deal with sick kids, and other child needs. So welfare to work is not really a problem of reluctant putative workers but of limited services, high expenses/tax rates, unwilling employers and often inappropriate job demands. Similarly, those with disabilities who can work would be delighted to do so, were their other needs to be met. Were the government to tackle these issues, thousands more so-called discouraged workers would flow back into paid work without any need for coercion.

So why are we being subjected to rhetoric and coercive policies? There are no votes in just providing extra services to those seeking work; the votes are in being seen as being tough on groups that are already defined as deviant. So sole parents make a good target! The inclusion in the media releases of respectable married mothers would ruin a perfectly good set of prejudices. Or maybe it would even turn the story against the Government as voters realised this was just a media exercise in scapegoating, not good policy!

Eva Cox is a long term feminist activist, a continuing member of WEL and an academic at UTS.

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