Persecuting The Poor?

There are clearly more jobseekers than jobs, writes Eva Cox. So why are Australian politicians so set on punishing the victims of social inequality?

It is NOT the mark of a civilised society if its laws punish the victims of its inequities. It should be very obvious to anyone with half a brain that there are not enough jobs for all of those who either want one or is compelled to look for one. The ratio of job vacancies to official job seekers, is at least more than three seekers per listed job — and more realistically probably more than 10 to one.

There were approximately 170,000 job vacancies listed by ABS in June and a similar number of ANZ advertised job vacancies in July. At the same time, there were about 808,000 recipients of Newstart registered with job agencies and more than 600,000 listed as unemployed in the ABS labourforce survey (meaning those with not even an hour a week of paid work). Given that many jobs go to people already in employment and most of the jobs on offer would require particular skills, the ratio of possible job seekers per available job would escalate. The current unemployment rate of around 5 per cent is seen as a “natural” level of full employment — which should please the government as it also makes the Reserve Bank less likely to raise interest rates.

A responsible government should be looking for equitable ways of sharing available jobs and making sure that those unfortunately stuck on benefits can maintain a decent standard of living. However, the only times that the unemployed have rated any attention in this campaign have been when one or both major parties have assumed they are guilty of causing their own predicament. Therefore both major parties’ policies include linked bribes and penalties to punish those not seen as trying hard enough. The indigent “dole bludger” fits neatly into populist politics and the rather paternalistic (parentalistic?) prejudices of both political leaders. “Get a job” is an easy slogan to gain public support, even when the likelihood is very limited for most recipients of Newstart.

These proposals ignore the pain of futile job seeking, the shortage of jobs and the effects of discrimination. Being unemployed can undermine confidence and enhance risk avoidance, particularly if people have experienced many rejections from complying with already tough job seeking requirements. Newstart payments go to a wide variety of groups that do have difficulties in finding work because of disabilities, sexuality, ethnic or Indigenous backgrounds, age, youth, and just not having the confidence and networks that help people find work.

Policies that fund work experience/job creation would be better than those currently on offer as they are often the necessary first stage of giving people the confidence to seek other employment. It is likely that the proposed payments to move for work will attract only the more confident — and probably more competent — workers who are more likely to get work anyhow. For many, the threat of losing 3 or 6 months benefits if they fail to keep the job will be a major disincentive for even trying.

These new proposals reinforce earlier welfare proposals with problematic similarities such as the joint threat to extend Income Management to all on benefits — including sole parents. There appears little space for policies that recognise social exclusion is not usually an individual deficit problem. Current ALP justifications for introducing Income Management assume that nearly all welfare recipients lead ‘disordered lives’ that cause their problems, unless they can prove otherwise. This extreme view ignores the majority of payment recipients who manage poverty and exclusion quite competently. There are obviously families and individuals with a range of personal problems in the welfare system, but assuming all do disrespects and risks damaging those who are now coping adequately.

We need to recognise that most recipients of payments are damaged by social inequalities and external problems that not of their making. Basing policies on assumptions that the faults are in the person not the system means there is no reason for social changes. Stigmatising the poor and disadvantaged to gain some voter brownie points makes both ineffective policies and social fragmentation. It is also deeply unethical.