The Australian: THE Australian Council of Social Services’ critique of the Abbott government’s “earn or learn” policy may be well-intentioned, but it is misguided.
ACOSS fails to acknowledge that while the present system supports the vulnerable it also creates welfare dependence, just as destructive as income poverty, among thousands of capable people.
Noel Pearson has been the most articulate critic of passive welfare, in part because remote indigenous communities have suffered its consequences to the greatest extent. His argument is a moral one.
In a seminal piece in 2000, he said “it is the nature of passive welfare that explains our social crisis. It explains the phenomenon that, even as our material condition improved over recent decades, our social condition deteriorated … Passive welfare kills initiative … promotes a victim mentality … reproduces these same problems in the following generations.”
Yet after 14 years, welfare dependence has got worse. The number of dole recipients not required to look for work has increased dramatically: 432,000 recipients of unemployment benefits (59 per cent) are exempt from the requirement to look for a job. Astonishingly, the number of job-search-exempt has more than doubled in five years.
More than 5 per cent of people of working age are on the Disability Support Pension; the number of recipients is rising by 50,000 a year. In remote indigenous communities, 82 per cent of 17-24 year olds are neither in full-time work nor study.
Welfare was never meant to be so all-encompassing. Its origins were in churches, which could make local, tailored judgments as to who was in need and the level of assistance needed. As people got back on their feet, assistance could be carefully withdrawn. Dependence was nearly impossible.
The introduction of the welfare state changed this. By definition, a government program is rule-based and removed from local communities. The safety net was cast wider to pick up every possible person who was downtrodden.
The benefit of this approach was that it eliminated income poverty, but there were unintended consequences. Capable people were captured by the net as much as the most vulnerable.
Our policy of “earn or learn” for under 30s is trying to change the culture back to greater individual responsibility while keeping the best parts of a modern day safety net. For school-leavers, welfare will simply not be available for six months. After that six-month delay, there will be a requirement to contribute to society through a work for-the-dole scheme for 25 hours a week.
For those under 30 who are in work but lose their job, they will face a six-month delay in accessing welfare (but with a month’s reduction for every year of work done). So a person who worked for five years before quitting or losing work will only face a one month delay. Work-for-the-dole would also then apply.
Safety nets, however, are embedded. First, there are exemptions for single parents, part-time apprentices and those with limited work capacity or other significant problems. Second, if one starts a training course, income support is immediately available. There are training and education opportunities for everyone; we are making diplomas part of the tertiary loan scheme. Third, an extra $230 million will be provided in emergency relief.
This is ACOSS’s main criticism. But the transfer of funds from the general welfare budget to targeted relief is in line with the philosophical shift in welfare policy of more nuanced, targeted, local support. It’s vital that young people are encouraged to learn to contribute.
The welfare lobby should understand it is not compassionate to encourage a life on welfare. To the contrary, it destroys spirit and weakens our economy. We must look after the vulnerable, but addressing passive welfare dependence is also paramount.
Alan Tudge is parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister.