Income guarantees, social justice and environmental sustainability

Paper delivered at Ecopolitics X ANU, Canberra 26-29 September 1996.

Australia’s current Social Security system is a hotchpotch of programs which purport to provide a social welfare safety-net.  The Labor and Liberal Parties are committed to expanding “self provision” in times of unemployment, illness and retirement.  Once policies such as privatised superannuation are widely implemented, support for publicly provided income maintenance will be eroded thus undermining the social wage and social justice. Further, this economic rationalisers’ dream of everyone providing their own income support will increase exploitation of the natural environment, and leads to a decline in the provision of long term technological, educational and social infrastructure as those in a position to maximise profit taking during their working life will do so rather than forgoing immediate returns in the interests of future productive capacity or environmental sustainability.  Self provision of income support requires people to maximise their contributions to funds during their working life in order to maximise their income in retirement.

This paper presents an analysis of the efficacy of existing income maintenance provisions, evaluates the myth of “self provision” and argues for the introduction of a guaranteed minimum income as the basis for building a socially just and ecologically secure future.

Existing income maintenance provisions

Policy debates around the existing system of income support in this country have recognised that the present Australian system has grown out of long reliance on employment (Castles 1994) to provide basic income security for the bulk of the working class and that the Commonwealth funded social security is meant to provide a pretty tatty safety net through which many people fall when they encounter hard times.

The present system of income support has been criticised for:

(a) being paid at an inadequate level,
(b) failing to provide an adequate safety net because it does not ensure all those without other income receive assistance sufficient to maintain themselves at least at the poverty line (Raper 1994),
(c) treating people in equivalent financial need unequally (Perry 1995),
(d) undermining citizenship (Watts 1995 a,b),
(e) creating dependency (Crosio 1994 contra Watts 1994, 1995 b)

(f) failing to create the opportunity which could free people to utilise their creative or productive potential (McDonald 1995, Tomlinson 1991, 1995 c , Tomlinson & Lincoln 1995)
(g) being poorly understood with resulting low take-up (Raper 1995),
(h) being unnecessarily complex (Joint Committee of Public Accounts 1983), confusing (Raper 1995),
(i) overly targeted / regulated (Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Training 1992,Tomlinson b),
(j) stigmatising (Baldwin 1995) and
(l) causing work disincentives because of excessive withdrawal rates on earned income (Economic Planning Advisory Council 1988).

The existing system of income support conforms substantially with the blue print set down by the Labor Government in 1947.  The Poverty Inquiry (Henderson 1975) set up by the Liberal Coalition Government and expanded by the Whitiam Government provided the only government funded independent review of the entire system of income support since 1947. Henderson recommended replacing the existing system of income support with a guaranteed minimum income (Henderson 1975 a, Chapter 6).  There have been other constrained reviews such as that conducted during Brian Howe’s time as Minister for Social Security (Cass 1986, 1988).

By the time Labor left office the system failed to provide security and was becoming more tightly targeted / regulated (Tomlinson 1995 a,b).  It was not capable of providing a sound basis on which to build a modern Australian citizenship ( Watts 1995 a, b, Tomlinson 1996, Cox 1995) and had become obsessed with the need to ensure that individuals became self providers of income support (Tomlinson 1995 b). The arrival of the Howard Government has increased this push towards self provision – newly arrived migrants are no longer entitled to rely on publicly provided income support until two years after arrival.  Moves have been foreshadowed to limit the time young people in particular can rely on government unemployment benefits (Bessant 1996, Thompson 1996).  It would seem that the current Australian Government is determined to replicate The New Zealand Experiment so comprehensively criticised for ignoring social costs by Jane Kelsey and Sue Bradford (Kelsey 1995, Bradford 1996).

Self provision

In the general income support debate the central policy questions have revolved around: categorical targeting (Mitchell, Harding & Gruen 1994) and deciding which unit of income is appropriate for payment the individual, family or household (Hayden 1975, Edwards 1976, 1984).  These questions have become enmeshed in the simplicity versus complexity debate, much time has been spent discussing comprehensiveness, effectiveness, efficiency, adequacy, affordability and the propensity for government provided welfare payments to create dependency (contra Watts 1995 b).  The less eligibility debates have centred around means and asset testing, the need to ensure no disincentives to work or engage in other approved activities and most importantly the question of self-provision versus publicly supplied income support.

This last feature in the present decade has centred around replacing government benefits and pensions by replacing them with superannuation, and to a lesser extent privatised unemployment insurance (Latham 1996).  Like many other aspects of income support it was a re-run of much earlier debates.

The Australian income support system has since before federation relied on governments raising taxes, some of which, it reallocated to groups whose income was low and whom it considered worthy (Smith 1993).  The Commonwealth has consistently rejected introducing a social insurance model to assist the less well off.  The conservatives attempted to introduce social insurance forms in the 1930s but they were rejected by the Labor Party.  The Hancock Inquiry proposed a national superannuation scheme in 1976 which would, had it been introduced, been a form of social insurance (Hancock 1976).

In the mid 1980s the Hawke/Keating Government driven by a naive belief in economic rationalism (Pusey 1991, Ormerod 1994, Gollan 1993) and spooked by their ill-founded hysteria over aged dependency ratios (oblivious to the fact that overall dependency ratios are the real fiscal determinants of mode of distribution outlays) decided not to introduce a GMI or a national superannuation scheme along social insurance lines or even to broaden the existing categories of the income maintenance program.  Putting their faith in a corrupt private insurance industry, they introduced a privatised compulsory “national” superannuation scam (ACTCOSS 1991, Pha 1992, Tomlinson 1995 a, b).  They exacerbated this situation by increased targeting of existing benefits and applying more stringent work/activity testing.  The Current Liberal Minister for Social Security has now intensified pressure on the unemployed by insisting they maintain a “where I looked for work” diary and by setting up a “dob in a dole bludger” hot line in her Department.

This current Australian superannuation model is the epitome of the economic rationalists’ dream of self provision.  Unlike the Hancock (1976) proposal, there is no basic benefit paid to people with disabilities and others who are unable to contribute.  The rich do very well out of it: their benefits are subsidised by PAYE taxpayers, total, tax concessions on Superannuation amount to $8 billion a year (ABC 1996) the poor find their contributions eaten up in administrative costs, some contributors have found their contributions have just disappeared through fraud (ACTCOSS 1991).  This form of privatised superannuation discriminates against the marginalised, the sick, women, casual workers, low skilled workers, Aborigines whose only work has been the Community Development Employment Program and other people who experience long periods out of the work force.  The current form of privatised superannuation continues the inequalities of peoples’ working life into the post work phase of their lives.

It is a misnomer to call the Australian system of superannuation “self provision” rather it is inverse Robin Hoodism where the government of the day robs the poor in order to subsidise the wealthy.

There is a growing recognition that: (1) many members of the working class when employed may receive a wage not much above the Henderson Poverty Line. (2) Commonwealth income support payments leave many recipients living below that Line.

Income forgone paid into compulsory superannuation increases difficulties for low income earners even when they are employed. (ACOSS 1994 pp. 22-30)

Universal income guarantees

The guaranteed minimum income debate in Australia began in the early 1970s (Braybrook 1970, Horne 1970, Scott, 1972, Benn 1981, Henderson 1975 a, b, Priorities Review Staff 1975, Liffman 1978, Tomlinson 1973).  By 1973 the then Minister for Social Security, Bill Hayden indicated the Whitlam Government’s intention to introduce a guaranteed minimum income (Hayden’1973).  The Main Report of the Henderson Poverty Inquiry recommended a two tiered guaranteed income which would be based on the family as the unit of income thereby superseding most of the categorical income support payments available to low income earners (Henderson 1975 a, b).  The essential ideas inherent in the Henderson GMI proposals had been outlined by a British Liberal economist Lady Rhys-Williams in 1943.

The arguments for and against introducing universal income guarantees in Australia has waxed and waned since that time.  Modern income guarantee proposals have taken three main forms, the first two found early expression in Britain: GMI ( Rhys-Williams 1973) and Basic Incomes (Jordan 1973, 1987, McDonald 1992, Parker 1991, Secretary of State for Social Services 1972) and negative income tax (NIT) an American derivative (Rolph & Break 1961, p. 404, Friedman 1962 Chapter 4, Theobald 1963, Lampman 1965, Moynihan 1973, Williams 1972).  There has been a fourth form of income guarantee as was expressed in the Special Benefit legislation in Australia 1947-87 (Tomlinson 1989), currently in France where it is called Minimum Integration Income (French Embassy 1988) , and as was suggested in the United States of America by Tobin (1965).  This last form of income guarantee is a catch-all safety-net.

Ecological outcomes arising out of income support choices

Environmentalists have been strong advocates of income guarantees, they have utilised social equity / distributional reasoning and have argued that income guarantees have the capacity to diminish western society’s drive for excessive productivity (Watts 1994, Van Parijs 1992).  This environmental argument is subsequently employed by those who see the work/hedonism trade-off as an important determinant of income policies and as grounds for opposing the introduction of a universal income guarantee (Whiteford 1981, Saunders 1981 contra Saunders 1994, Stilwell 1993, pp. 85-88. , Tomlinson 1989, Watts 1994).

There are reasons why environmentalists should support a GMI or an adequate Commonwealth system of income support on ecological and economic sustainability grounds.  One such argument for this is that both the present social security system and even more so a GMI result in intergenerational cash transfers.

In the case of a GMI, because this system would be more widely understood, such transfers between generations would be more transparent than with categorical systems.  On the other hand superannuation and other forms of self provision mean that the person’s capacity to extract the maximum economic advantage from the employed period of their life determines the amount on which they will have to draw in the post work phase of their lives.

Self-providers have substantial economic reasons for opposing environmental measures which will, in the short term, limit their income and hence decrease their personal superannuation pay out.  Those who rely on a GMI or other forms of tax payer funded income support payments have their economic security intimately connected with long term national economic sustainability.

The short term economic reason which might incline self providers with the raison d’etre to engage in unsustainable environmental exploitation becomes less compelling once self providers realise that their long term economic security and social comfort in later years is also intimately connected with the economic and environmental sustainability of the nation as a whole and that there is a finite limit to the earth’s productive capacity.

During the last century there has been a massive increase in population and production throughout the world.  Within the last decade world marine food production has started to decline as has the number of hectares of the world’s arable land.  Environmentalist have declared that allowing population and production to continue to expand until we reach a point where the finite capacity to produce is reached is self destructive.

Further  they maintain that well before that point is reached widespread species extinction will occur and humans’ quality of life diminish (Ehrlic & Ehrlic 1992).

In Australia during the last two centuries invading humans and feral animals have been responsible for half the mammalian extinctions in recorded history ( Amos, Kirkpatrick, & Giese 1993, contra Chisholm & Moran 1993).  They have turned the Murray Darling River system into a sewer, removed 90% of the rain forrest, had major impacts on coastal fisheries (Kailola 1993) and degraded much of the arable land.

During the Hawke period in office the Government made the first tentative steps to recognise the fact that without environmental sustainability there could not be economic sustainability (ESD Working Group 1991).  Unfortunately, like Brian Howe’s social justice strategy, environmental sustainability became a stand alone policy unconnected to anything else.  Such stand alone policies are hung out on the flag pole just so they can be pointed to during election periods or at times when party activists try to recall why they joined the Party.

Whilst it may be possible, in the short term, to marginalise environmental sustainability and social justice policies – the longer it is done the greater will be the ultimate social, environmental and economic impact.  We are still at a stage in Australia, and throughout the world, where the social justice questions could be addressed by abolishing the military and through developing equitable distributional strategies (Wheelwright 1991, Hunt 1987, Smith & Smith 1983, Debus & Merson 1977, George 1980,1990, Chomsky 1988, Peck 1987).

Social comfort

There are quality of life reasons why prime aged workers have a vested interest in ensuring environmental sustainability at the time they retire.  During retirement people have far more time available to visit the places they have only talked about during their working life.  Whilst many Australians still do the big overseas trip shortly after leaving employment for the last time, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of citizens who now choose instead to visit Kakadu, the Bungle Bungles, Ayres Rock, the Great Barrier Reef and many other wilderness areas, about which they could only dream when they were wage slaves.

Because retirement for most older Australians equates with limited income, time on their hands and declining health they often rely on doing things either around the house or within a few kilometres of it.  Many of these activities involve supplementing the household income.  Vegetable gardens are established, fishing becomes much more confined to local beaches and rivers.  Gone are the days when they could afford or could handle larger vessels which carried them to distant ocean reefs.  They develop more awareness of the problems of over exploitation of local areas – frequently leading campaigns to stop professional fishing in their area or to prevent other environmental degradation.

They come to clearly understand the connection between devastation of locally occurring natural resources (which they now need to utilise) and the economy.  This awareness is increased every time they buy bait and can’t catch a feed in the local creek or have to drive to distant fishing spots in order to ensure tomorrows breakfast.

Universal income guarantees, viable environments and economic sustainability

The environment is the one thing which we all own in common (though we each exploit it individually and differently).  The environment is the ultimate basis of present and future wealth.  Through distortions such as “self provision”, we depart from acknowledging it as the producer of our common wealth.  Privatised superannuation “self provision” operates in Australia at the moment in such a way that those who receive the greatest financial rewards throughout their working lives are the ones who get most from the superannuation system in retirement.  They are often the very same people who are engaged in the greatest exploitation of the natural environment.  They are frequently the employers (or managers) who in their ruthless extraction of surplus value (Bottomore, et. al. 1983 pp. 472-476) are least conserving of other humans’ health and well being.  The mystifying rhetoric of “self provision” is designed to disguise the rewards which go to those who take the most from the common pool of environmental wealth.

At the time of the enclosures in England a poet expressed this same idea:

“The law locks up the men and women
who steal the goose from off the common
but leaves the larger villain loose
who steals the common from the goose.”(anon.)

Governments in a democracy can’t indefinitely impose unpopular policies.  Citizens respond to the issues in terms of the way they see their interests being best served.  This does not imply that people only act from an egotistical perspective, they may well act out of altruism, and still have their perceived best interests being served.  The socioeconomic structures position all of us – determining how we see the world, how we perceive our interests.

For a long time it has been recognised that the degree to which people are prepared to defer gratification is dependent upon the certainty they have that deferment will actually result in gratification (Ternowetsky 1980 chapter 5, Loney 1986).  Australians’ appreciation of politicians and their public servants’ reliability in honouring promises can be judged from the humorous response which follows in the wake of statements like “I’m from the Government and I’m here to help you”.

If people are placed in a situation where their economic security in their retirement ( a period for most people where they have limited control of income generation) is intimately connected to the amount they can accumulate during the employed period of their lives then most will attempt to maximise their income during their paid employment period.

On the other hand, were people told that during the paid work period of their lives they would pay contributions/taxes to sustain children, disabled and retired members of their society and that their retirement income would be provided by the younger generations when they entered the workforce then different structural pressures would exist.  The egocentred might at first only want to pay to maximise the earning capacity of younger citizens arguing that the elderly were going to do nothing for them.  But even the most ego centred individual might realise that to adopt such an uncaring attitude towards senior citizens might set an unfortunate precedent for the time when they reached the end of their working life.

Future economic prosperity is totally dependent upon having an environment both natural and industrial which has the capacity to continue to produce sufficient wealth to maintain standards of living.  If retirement income is dependent upon those in employment paying their taxes which are then redistributed to the young and the retired this results in the basic social structure being in place to encourage all permanent residents to develop environmentally sustainable exploitation and to ensure that investment is made in industrial, educational and technological infrastructure.

Even with a system of retirement income being provided by way of self provision the total amount of income available for all retired people will ultimately be determined by the state of the environment and the continued investment in educational industrial and technological infrastructure.  However the social structure would not be in place which would encourage self-providing workers to forego income in the interest of future generations.  Self provision reinforces egotism by providing clear economic advantage to those who set out with a beggar thy neighbour attitude to maximise their personal economic well being.

Future directions and problems

The focus of struggle ahead for those interested in universal, adequate, comprehensive, easily understood and socially equitable forms of income guarantees will be to run the fight up to reactionary forces (well intended or otherwise) who wish to retain the existing forms of income support and simultaneously confront the economic rationalists who would reduce the amount and scope of government provided income support through the promotion of privatised self-provision on the one hand and stigmatised welfare relief on the other. (Jamrozik 1994, p. 102, Rees, Rodley & Stilwell 1993, Vintila, Phillimore & Newman 1992)

If we are going to win such a struggle we are going to have to build broad community support far beyond the confines of the social welfare industry, trade union and progressive community politicians – in particular we need to garner support from environmentalists and the uncommitted.

Much of the current social / environmental debate in Australia revolves around employment versus conservation, increased production versus species protection, and other issues which pit sensible ecology against social equity.  These issues are not necessarily oppositional.  The Greens, the Democrats and some members of the Labor Party (Langmore & Quiggan 1994) realise the connection between public provision of retirement incomes and sustainable economic development.  The one million Australians who play some part in environmental protection organisations are potentially the most powerful source of support for the introduction of a GMI.

The challenge for those interested, in the promotion of social justice is to form a united front combining progressive human service workers, the non-aligned and most particularly environmentalists, to increase awareness of the environmentally sustaining nature of income guarantees over “self-provision”.  Such a coalition would build an Australian society committed to economic and environmental sustainabilty.  It would be an Australia committed to the promotion of human rights and social justice.  In Lady Rhys-Williams words it would “provide a floor below which no body would fall without imposing a ceiling above which no body could rise”. (Glyn p. 163)


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