The real moral jeopardy of ‘Welfare Dependency’

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Wednesday, 29 September 2004

When I started studying social work in the early 1960s I focused on the alleviation of poverty rather than some of the more up-market options being touted at the time. Central to my thinking now, as then, is that unless someone has enough to eat, somewhere safe to live and enough money to cover essential expenses it is little wonder they are depressed and anxious.

The Depression of the 1930s alerted Australians to the horrors of poverty. The expansion of the social security system during World War II and immediately afterwards came to be viewed as an important marker of our civilised way of life. In the post war period, Australians had a sense of building and sharing the common wealth. The Menzies’ Liberal Coalition, which replaced Labor in 1949, retained the main planks of the Australian welfare state. By the mid 1970s people started to conceive of social security as an entitlement that ensured sufficient income on which to survive the misfortunes of life. Many of the residues of the British Poor Law administrations of 1601 and 1834, particularly the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, had started to erode.

In the mid-1980s, Brian Howe, the Labor Minister for Social Security began stressing the propensity for people on social security to become “dependent”. Similar rhetoric had long preoccupied American politicians who sought to destroy the American welfare system. Howe set up a review of social security, headed by Professor Bettina Cass (1988), which recommended moving towards an “active” employment policy. This policy was code for adding some extra obligations to the unemployment benefit work test, which had existed since 1947. The “active employment” theme continued to inform policies and was spelt out in detail in Keating’s 1994 Working Nation. This document specified that unemployment benefit recipients would have to meet “reciprocal obligations” in return for income support and “active” labour market strategies.

Upon assuming office in 1996, the Howard Coalition Government set out to abolish Working Nation’s labour market programmes and to enforce a range of so called “mutual obligations” upon recipients of
the unemployment benefit. On November 9, 1999 the Minister for Family and Community Services, Jocelyn Newman launched “The Challenge of Welfare Dependency in the 21st Century”, which she described as a “discussion” paper designed to inform submissions to her review of Australian social security.

Minister Newman established an enquiry, headed by Patrick McClure, to investigate ways of ending the “welfare dependency” of social security recipients. McClure dutifully reported that there was a need to end “passive welfare” and to extend “active” labour market programs. The McClure Report went on to argue that “mutual obligations” should be extended beyond those who are unemployed and that the introduction of “participation income support programs” was a way of requiring recipients to meet their “mutual obligations”. The newly targeted groups were single parents and people with disabilities.

Ray Cassin (2000) senior writer for The Age suggested:

You can be “on” social security in the literal sense of receiving benefits, but this usage does not carry the pejorative flavour of being “ on” welfare. The reason is not mysterious: we do not talk about social-security dependency, or social-services dependency because “ social security” and “ social services” are bound up with an older notion of entitlement, and an understanding of mutual obligation that goes beyond tit-for-tat reciprocity….The ideal of mutual obligation underpinning a system of social security is not one of reciprocity, but of obligation borne by all of us to contribute to the support of people who would otherwise be destitute.

Guy Standing, Director of the Socio-Economic Security Programme of the International Labour Organisation, notes that governments around the world are increasingly using social policy terms to convey false or misleading ideas. In his book Beyond the new paternalism he wrote:

The notion of active labour market policy is equally disingenuous. The word “ active” seems virile and strong, whereas its opposite, “ passive”, suggests laziness, and lack of initiative. In fact, active policy is little more than having the state telling people what they must do in order to receive some modest benefit, directing them to training or job schemes. By contrast, the much-derided passive policy entails giving funds to individuals or families with minimal conditions, leaving them to make choices about how to conduct their lives and allocate resources (2002, p. 104).

The Howard “mutual obligation” bandwagon rolled on undeterred. But it hit a brick-wall in the Senate when it tried to undermine the disability support pension. If the Howard Government is re-elected, on the October 9, 2004, it will no doubt try again. Signs are already emerging in the media (Kelly 2004, Mead 2004, Australia Talks Back 2004). Paul Kelly enthusiastically endorsed the call of right wing propagandist, Peter Saunders of the Centre for Independent Studies, for time limits on unemployment and other social security payments and for weeding out the disguised unemployed from amongst the ranks of disability support pensioners. Lawrence Mead one of the architects of the US welfare cutbacks is a frequent guest of right-wing think-tanks in Australia. He incessantly prescribes the same medication of “tough love” and “hassle” to end Australia’s “welfare dependency”.

Mead and other right-wing commentators suggest that the nation “has to be cruel to be kind” to recipients of social security in order “to encourage them to do the right thing by themselves and the nation”. That is, recipients must be hassled in order to help them escape the moral jeopardy of receiving something for nothing. Since 1999, Noel Pearson has regularly trotted out a not dissimilar line when he suggests that Aborigines are the victims of the “poison of passive welfare” when they need instead to refocus upon taking responsibility for their own economic success. Opposition Leader, Mark Latham has for a long time been obsessed with the idea of moving people from welfare to work. In the 2004 election campaign he is running on clichés of either “learning or earning” as the way to escape poverty. Such ideas are explicit in the reward structures of the ALP’s Family and Tax Policy.

Two things are remarkable about the moral jeopardy argument put by Mead and his ilk. Firstly, how far we have moved from the ideas which inspired the post World War II welfare state; and secondly, how the concept of moral jeopardy is distorted. From 1947 to the early 1980s, Australians were not blind to the financial costs of providing welfare services to the less well off but they saw such spending as an important part of being citizens of the Commonwealth. They realised that the quality of citizenship was enhanced by free education, basic health and community services. It provided a sense of social solidarity.

There was no suggestion that such social spending was an optional extra. Certainly, some begrudged their less affluent neighbours getting benefits they themselves weren’t entitled to and they expected unemployed people to seek work and to support themselves whenever possible. Yet, most Australians would have felt that failing to provide such basic services was the moral equivalent of the medieval practice of leaving paupers (who were not from the parish) at the crossroads to starve to death. Most Australians at that time would have considered themselves to be socially and personally diminished by such neglect.

Since the rise of economic fundamentalism in Australia there have been incessant calls to limit welfare assistance. The mythology of distorting phrases like “the level playing field”, “trickle down prosperity”, “user pays” and “rising tides lift all ships” have befuddled many. In this country many even call economic fundamentalism “economic rationalism”, which somehow implies that this form of economics is not only rational but “TINA – there is no alternative”. Economic fundamentalism promises that by accumulating inordinate wealth the rich will enjoy heaven on earth. It simultaneously promises salvation for the poor if they avoid the moral jeopardy of becoming “dependent” on welfare.

Nowhere do the economic fundamentalists or the Lawrence Meads and Peter Saunders of this world admit that well-off people arguing that Commonwealth tax revenue should be diverted from income support, health and community services (used by the less affluent) to areas of interest to the well-off is the ethical equivalent of rich people stealing money from the parish poor box. Nowhere do these pundits acknowledge that such actions place the rich in moral jeopardy.