Welfare fantasies

There’s a particular kind of conservative rhetoric around at the moment that says all people on welfare are terrible. These awful poor people are destroying the budget with their free welfare from hard working taxpayers causing rising divorce rates and declining fertility. Even worse, these bludgers will blow the budget to smithereens by costing over a million squillion hard earned tax payer dollars any time now.

All of this is predicated on the belief that somehow people on welfare are ripping off ‘decent Australians,’ because they are always two separate groups. Every article spawns the same comment thread bingo card about fraud and that bloke down the road who plays video games and smokes bongs all day, despite repeated findings that welfare fraud is actually minuscule.

This is bullshit, of course, but also doesn’t make sense to me. People use our social safety net when things go wrong. That’s what it is for.

I live in a place with more than a few people on welfare, and even some living in those magical free houses from the government. It’s cold at this time of year, and the kids sitting in the library aren’t there for the books. The two blokes on a seat in the shopping centre are there to get warm, and to go to lunch at the community centre. The young mum, shivering as she tucks her baby under a thick blanket, is taking her time looking at everything in BigW because she can’t afford heating in her flat.

None of them are luxuriating in a pile of taxpayer dollars or lazing around. Perhaps they are among the 20% of people on Newstart who work in insecure, casual jobs that don’t pay enough to get them off the dole. Maybe they are fleeing domestic violence and had to leave everyone they knew. Perhaps they ran out of money this fortnight because their kid needed something for school. Maybe they’ve had a breakdown, or got depression, or someone they loved died and they fell apart for a bit.

And you know what? That’s what our social safety system is for – to make sure that everyone can eat, and put a roof over their head when things are shit.

The people I meet around town are kind, generous and keen to help, which is what most people are like. People who need a bit of help don’t suddenly turn into the evil welfare monster chasing taxpayer money through Scott Morrison’s nightmares. They are people who fight bushfires, and make a cake for a neighbour, and mind a friend’s kids, and donate a couple of dollars for that sick Mum up the road just every other kind of person.

Being on the dole, or the disability pension, or getting any other kind of social security payment doesn’t suddenly turn people into someone different from everyone else.

I wonder if any of the people making conservative characterisations of the social safety net ever stop to think about what the consequences would be if we didn’t have a safety net? Do they really want kids to got to school hungry? Do they want disabled people to be homeless? Do they want older women to live in their cars and go without medicine? I sure as hell don’t.

I want a system that helps people when they fall down, or have bad luck, or get old, or sick. I want the system we have to be better at doing that, not to degenerate into a nightmarish maze that punishes people for being poor. Our social safety net is something to be defended and strengthened, not brought down with lies and prejudice.

Posted in housing, jobs, social justice, welfare | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Everyone deserves a home, right?

The NSW State Budget has come and gone, and despite getting a record amount of stamp duty from the over-priced housing market, there wasn’t any increase in social housing announced.

I’ve been doing a little campaign around this, because I am increasingly angry about the way that housing is discussed – as an investment, or a way to make money, or claim a tax deduction – rather than as a home.

That very discussion then morphs into some nebulous notion of unaffordability, with entirely predictable articles about housing bewailing the ‘young people today who won’t move to the suburbs because they are snobs.’ Or that it’s so easy to buy a house with a little jiggery-pockery that we don’t call class. Right.

All this misses the point entirely – everyone deserves a home, not just the people who can afford one. Disabled people, older people, unemployed people, sick people, people who are carers, single parents deserve to have somewhere to live. Surely that’s not a controversial statement. And yet, policy and budget spending seems to say it is.

This is what is missing from so-called housing affordability debate. If someone can’t afford a home, what happens then? As one charming Facebook commenter said – ‘buy your own, or go without.’ Ok then.

Social and public housing used to have more political support, with the Commonwealth Housing Commission saying in the 1940s that:

“We consider that a dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen – whether the dwelling is to be rented or purchased, no tenant or purchaser should be exploited for excessive profit.”

Yes, that is the sound of a thousand tenants weeping. Governments, then, knew they had a role in making sure everyone had somewhere to live, trying various experiments, but continuing to increase the supply of public housing until the 1980s, where it was left to the market, and that worked out so well.

The public housing waiting list in NSW has over 60,000 people in a ten year long queue. In the meantime, they pay more and more of their incomes on rent, live in squalid and crowded conditions, or end up living in cars or tents. And this is just the people who can get on the list.

If you earn the minimum wage, you can’t apply. If you earn more than $575 a week, at any time, you are off the list, so if you get any kind of casual or temporary work, no house for you. This is the opposite of the housing affordability discussion – here, you can’t get any help if you work at all. Given the rise and rise of casual workers, this is all a bit broken.

If you can’t afford a home, you can’t access all the benefits of living in a big city – public services, jobs, friends and family while people who can afford a home get to have them all. This puts a means test on the public services that are meant to be for everyone. More social housing means everyone can fit in Sydney, not just those who can afford to.

Posted in disability, economics, housing, jobs, social justice | Tagged , | 1 Comment