Australia has a Welfare service called Centrelink. Ideally it’s meant to pay you while you do job searching, or keep you afloat while you’re a student. It’s also the disability support pension and social security. Basically, if you can’t or shouldn’t work for some reason or another, this is ‘the dole’ or ‘the rates’.
I can’t work a stable job. My output schedule here should show that it’s not for lack of determination or education, but I have some fairly severe medical issues that means that I simply cannot work in traditional workplaces.
The most I could get, if I were living on my own and not making any money whatsoever, is $688 a fortnight, or $344 a week.
Let’s run down some numbers really quickly here.
Australian minimum wage is $712 a week. Which is to say that I would be making less than half the absolute minimum wage.
The Australian median wage is $85,000 a year. Minimum wage earners make closer to $35,000. The absolute maximum of a disability pensioner is $20,000 a year, less than a quarter of the median and half the minimum wage.
There are arguments that if someone isn’t working they don’t deserve as much as someone who does. But the problem with this argument is that people on the disability pension can’t get that work, regardless of willingness. And what work they can manage will push those benefits down – That $20,000 is a maximum, not a guarantee.
For example, I was previously on Newstart with a disability supplement, on the condition I was a full-time student. Along with half-price public-transportation, I got…
$298 per fortnight, less than half what I theoretically could have been getting.
Why? Because I live at home, with a very supportive family which I am impossibly lucky — and I am lucky — to have. Because of that, the asset of my mother’s house counts against my support.
This means I could functionally chip in to pay bills, but never enough to have some kind of independence and move out. Not when Australia has some of the least affordable rent in the world. I am reliant on my family which, in turn, forces me to stay that way.
There’s another reason why it’s so low. Australia has some of the harshest means testing in the world. For instance, you’re not really disabled if it’s deemed you could theoretically work 15 hours a week. The fact that these jobs are so difficult to get as a disabled person doesn’t matter. What matters is that you could, in theory, work 15 hours in a week. Then you’re simply a jobseeker with a small bonus.
The overlap between these services and thresholds and requirements results in a lot of red tape which is kept as intentionally confusing and as difficult as possible.
Because he was over 16 the Child Disability Allowance was stopped. J was an ‘adult’ for Centrelink and employment purposes, a ‘child’ by law and for private health insurance—the list goes on. J can work over 15 hours per week—so no Disability Pension; no Youth Allowance because his parents’ combined income was over the ‘magic’ number. He had to fight lots of red tape to receive the Mobility Allowance, his only source of income for a very long time. This was a very traumatic time for J as he wanted to become independent and at least work part time ‘like the others’. It would have been better if J had automatically received either the Disability Pension or Youth Allowance/Mobility Allowance and access to services immediately from leaving Year 12.
My friend, ‘Courtney’, puts forth her own experience on how this obsession with means testing and paperwork exists to hurt people who are most at-risk.
“When I applied for centerline I was under 21. But my dad was getting pretty abusive ie. kicking in windows, throwing shit around, hitting my dog. So I had to apply for unable to live at home. Well it was about 3 months later. I had my psych write a letter in regards to it. I had a social worker write a supporting letter saying that I was unable to live at home. But you have to be living out of home to apply for the loan. So you need to somehow get money to live out of home first before they will give you money. Then they also told me, after a long time, speaking with their social workers etc. that they need to send the form out to the parent for them to fill in. So if you’re in an abusive situation your parent has to be informed you’re telling the government you are in an abusive situation and can’t live at home.The parent doesn’t have to send it back in. But you have to wait like 2 or 3 weeks before the claim will get processed while they wait to get the paperwork back.”
My own experience is with the hoops you have to jump through to qualify for disability. In my case, I could theoretically work 15 hours a week and was put on the jobseeker plan with a small bonus. This is a fate many disabled people will be forced into; The actual disability pension outlined above has achieved a sort of lottery status, where your ‘disability’ can be highly subjective based on which government employee assesses you, and you’re forced to be reassessed every 2 years.
This creates absurd situations. Someone I used to babysit was just means-tested again. They have to check he still has Downs syndrome every 2 years.
It also needs to be stressed that $298 was the amount I was getting every 2 weeks was as a jobseeker. Currently there are one hundred and fifty thousand vacant jobs in Australia, but two million unemployed or underemployed people competing for them. This is necessary for the broader job market to function – some unemployment will always exist, as there’ll never be a perfect fit of people to jobs. So why do we crush these people if unemployment is necessary?
Conditional to that $298 was sending out ten resumes a week, attending all received interviews, and having a mandatory half-hour session with a job placement counselor to make sure you were actually trying. This was the most dehumanizing, demoralizing and crippling experience I’ve ever been through in my life. The system is designed that way, and it’s effective. I’ve been stretching my Patreon and commission fees for the last six months just to avoid it. Six months I’ve kept myself off the dole while being in such a tenuous financial situation, just because it was that harmful.
This might sound pretty pathetic – it’s free money, right? The government should ensure it’s ‘deserved’. Except the reality is that you’re forcing people to submit ten resumes out a week, and document it, which usually means ten documented rejections a week. Or interviews for jobs you’re not remotely qualified for or capable of. I know of a woman with multiple sclerosis who has to keep attending janitorial interviews with notes from her doctors saying she cannot be around the cleaning products, but if she doesn’t attend the interview then her payments are cut off.
They’re very clear about this, the employment services in their half hour meetings with you. Any hint of non-compliance will result in your payments being cut off. And it’s out of their hands, every time. Now, Ross, do you think you could manage a job cleaning an industrial bakery? There’s no access by public transportation, and you legally can’t drive-
Getting my $149 a week took time. It was time to commute to the unemployment office, time spent getting ready. A few hours spent every week trawling job websites for those resumes where you know you’re just wasting everyone’s time. Time I could have spent doing basically anything else. Reading time, studying time.
But if I wasn’t miserable enough, I might not have wanted to take a job when I was finally offered it.
It’s no secret about these jobs I’m describing. They’re trying to funnel maliciously impoverished people into low skill labour jobs. This has the effect of depressing wages in these areas, and making it much harder for these workers to negotiate their salaries or positions. By making the unemployment alternative so brutal, it removes the leverage minimum wage workers might have over their workplaces. They can be replaced so quickly by someone kept in a cultivated state of desperation.
I say maliciously impoverished because this situation isn’t simply unfortunate austerity cuts, or a result of apathy. It’s intentional. The system is working as intended, as far as policy makers have been concerned for decades. This is why even as cost of living increases every year, Centrelink payments haven’t changed in real dollars since 1994. The poverty line exists to depress labour.
Of work-for-the-dole assignments, 64% of 200 audited worksites were not fully compliant in risk assessments. Workplace safety doesn’t occur from charitable owners and managers, but only when workers are in a position to assert their rights. They lose that under this system, which makes the labour cheap and manipulable.
This is also why the work for the dole requirements were increased last month. Work for the dole is programs where, if you can’t find a job on your own, you’re made to do whatever to earn your allowance. Newstart allowance, by the way, caps out at $550 a fortnight.
The changes force Centrelink recipients between 30 and 49 to complete 50 hours of labour per fortnight, up from 30. The Newstart income has not been increased with this change.
Let’s do some quick maths. The current minimum wage in Australia is $18.29. 50 hours at minimum wage is $914.50. 50 hours of work-for-the-dole, however, is $550.
That’s $364 of ‘free’ labour every fortnight, extracted from those people in the most financially desperate situations.
Again we come back to the argument; “Well, why should people who don’t earn their money get as much?” We see that even when forced to earn it in dangerous, unskilled workplaces, Centerlink still underpays them.
The Guardian headlines: Hours to be increased amid claims program is ineffective at getting people into proper work and subjects them to unsafe conditions
I think it’s naive to call this a failure of the policy, and instead accept that this was always the desired outcome.
But it’s not about getting people into proper work, in the end. It’s about forcing society’s least protected, least sympathetic members into doing work we don’t want to have to pay for. The same reason the US Constitution has the 13th amendment explicitly allowing slave labour in the form of prisoners, do we achieve the same ends with poverty in Australia.
Welfare has to be competitive with the horribleness of horrible jobs. The alternative is paying horrible jobs more, or making them less horrible, when it’s far cheaper to make welfare worse. It doesn’t matter that this is the strictly worse alternative for the most possible people, because the people it is worse for have very little political power or representation.
To once again use my favourite graphs in political science:
Now you might ask why not just cut welfare? Simple. Hungry people are people without anything to lose and such people are too dangerous. I like to call this the guillotine equilibrium: How much you can cut, before it’s your neck.
The point for a modern state wishing to avoid this equilibrium is to keep people in a situation where they are just comfortable enough that they aren’t killing and eating the rich, but still desperate and miserable enough that they can barely survive. As one friend of mine put it: You might think of them as maximizing suffering in the long term.
It’s under this philosophy that the government is trialling ‘cashless’ cards for those on Centrelink, to ‘ensure the money can’t be spent on alcohol or drugs’. A common reason for restricting purchases. However, this cashless card can’t be exchanged for cash, barring these people from the cheapest, healthiest source of food for them: Farmers markets.
Notably, it also has made it more difficult for these people to pay rent.
So, what can be done of it?
I recently joined a Queensland group, inspired by one started in South Australia of the same name, called Anti-Poverty Network. These groups have made some gigantic inroads in Australia for raising the Centrelink sum, and are fighting the implementation of this new cashless system.
They recently convinced the Logan city council to petition for a doubling of Centrelink. Why? Because keeping as close as possible to the guillotine equilibrium, this can be disastrous at the local level, especially in areas where retraining is needed as an industry specialization recedes – mines close, car factories shutter, factories move overseas, and you can’t relocate all those people immediately.
Even when that’s not the case, you’re still looking at a 5.6% unemployment rate in Australia. We are forcing these conditions on 5% of the population as a warning to the rest of the salaried workforce.
Those people being shut out of the economy hurts the local community, a lot. The strength of an economy isn’t how much money is in circulation, but in how fast it’s being circulated. Lower income brackets are the fastest spenders of their money: There are so many things they just need to spend money on to improve their lives, that they can’t really afford to save it.
Think about that. It’s in local communities best interest to give these people more money, because it benefits everybody in that community. It lowers crime rates, it lowers occurrences of mental illness. But it’s being overridden at the Federal level.
The pressure those councils can put on the federal government is significant and meaningful, more than just voting for the right party every 4 years. They’re also the level most likely to respond to you and direct action. You aren’t powerless in your representation the second you cast your ballot, and there are people working hard to ensure that ‘productivity’ is held as more important than quality of life and community.
Even if you can’t give your time, these groups also do a lot with donations. Even a little bit of money can go a long way in a local group like APN. These people are tireless soldiers in a war that most people aren’t aware is being fought against them, even if they suspect they’re losing.