Catherine Delahunty

Welfare reports worlds apart

by Catherine Delahunty

In the past two days, two significant reports have come out about welfare. I’d like to say that together they provide a comprehensive picture of the welfare debate and the options for reform, but sadly that’s not the case.

The reports are the Welfare Working Group’s “Options Paper”, which essentially gives the Government a smorgasbord of punitive welfare reform options to choose from (with one or two slightly more palatable ones thrown in for good measure), and the Alternative Welfare Working Group’s “What We Heard” summary of submissions received in their parallel welfare review process.

The two could very well have been written on different planets.

As I pointed out when the Welfare Working Group’s report came out, it was a missed opportunity to genuinely address ways to support people out of poverty. Instead, the majority of the options are punitive, ideological, and punish beneficiaries and their children for the lack of appropriate, flexible work in the current economic climate. Some are downright scary, like the suggestion that sole parents should be required to return to work when their youngest child is just one year old, or, worse, that the age at which they should return to work should be determined by the oldest child, not the youngest. This is (not even thinly) veiled social engineering.

The report has a “relentless focus on paid work”, based on the assumption that being in work provides people with the best opportunities to achieve social and economic wellbeing. This “work at all costs” focus fails to address the reality that there simply aren’t jobs for people to go to in the current climate. We just heard that the number of new jobs created in September was the lowest since 1999.

It’s also a flawed approach because it’s based on some very dodgy uses of facts and figures. The report says that most people on one of the four main benefits (Unemployment, Domestic Purposes, Sickness or Invalids’ Benefit) would be up to $120 per week better off if they worked full time on the minimum wage. Sounds ok, except this assumes that they manage to find work for 40 hours per week. In fact, WINZ considers full time work to be 30 hours per week, and abates the benefit accordingly. If you do the same calculation for 30 hours per week, as economist Paul Dalziel has done, 40 percent of people would actually be worse off taking a minimum wage job than staying on the benefit!

[As an interesting aside, economist Susan St John told a seminar at lunchtime today that she ran a search of the document. The phrase "paid work" occurs more than 400 times; the word "inclusion" not once.]

The Alternative Welfare Working Group’s report is more robust, though not all of it is happy reading. It presents the views of submitters to the group, largely in their own words, about their experiences engaging with the welfare system, and their perspectives on welfare reform. Some is grim, like the sections on what it’s like to deal with an increasingly menacing WINZ culture; some is hopeful.

Most importantly, the Alternative Welfare Working Group’s report brings the voices of beneficiaries into the welfare debate, in a way that the Welfare Working Group has failed to do. At the seminar today, many people commented that their submissions to the Welfare Working Group weren’t reflected in the report’s “summary of submissions”, so the “What We Heard” document is even more valuable. It’s worth is perhaps best summarised by this submission:

Remind them that we are PEOPLE. Welfare changes work best if we have the opportunity to be well and energetic and find out ourselves what we are built to do. To be supported until then is essential. When we achieve it we feel too alive to stand still and not work.

Both groups are yet to deliver their final reports with recommendations to the Government. The Alternative Welfare Working Group’s final report comes out on 9 December, and the Welfare Working Group’s in February.

Until then, you still have a chance to tell the Welfare Working Group what you think – one easy way is via this online discussion board they’ve set up. The voices of the people may not have been heard so far, but the louder they are, the harder they are to ignore!