In discussions today on Twitter about changes to single parents incomes, I was a bit grumpy about the lack of policy history going on. Politics at the moment feels somehow void of memory. All announcements existing out of time and previous reports; just erupting fresh to be gobbled up and squabbled over. The goldfish swarm then moving on to the next gaffe, presser, doorstop, press release.
As I’ve talked about before, this is so completely unhelpful in teasing out complex policy and actually making a difference in actual peoples’ lives. It’s also deeply frustrating, as policy wheels just get reinvented over, and over, and over again.
The rhetoric about welfare ‘reform’ is not new. Enquiries were held in the 1920s through to the 1950s about the aged pension, and what form it should take. In contrast to many other countries, Australia’s pension model is not based on a type of social insurance, instead it is a means-tested entitlement. This paper has a great examination of the development of the unique Australian system.
The invalid pension was constantly changed – for example, in 1974, the requirement that a person had to be of ‘good character’ was removed.
Aboriginal people were only completely included under the welfare system in 1966.
The policy assumptions that underpinned Australia’s welfare policy have included some significant gender based bias when it comes to what is called work. Women were expected to be supported by a husband, working full-time, therefore structuring out any discussion of care work as having intrinsic value.
Unemployment benefits were introduced within this background of ‘full employment’, which really meant employment for men, with women expected to work at home. The work of caring for children, or anyone else, was erased as having monetary value from the very beginning.
Some estimates of the value of the care economy are as high as $30 billion per year for non-child related care, while women are still doing most of the unpaid care work, whether doing other work or not. A 2003 report, based on the 1997 Time Use survey, showed clearly the cost to women of unpaid care work.
The last major welfare ‘reform’ was done through the 1999 McClure Report. This report, and the then Howard Government’s response to it, entrenched the idea of so-called ‘mutual obligation’ and introduced Newstart. These changes also increased the barriers to accessing the single parent and disability pensions, while increasing benefits to those receiving the aged pension.
These changes were the final nail in the coffin of any discussion of a universal right of all citizens to be able to have a fair and decent life. Previous conversations about guaranteed incomes, or government as a buffer to an unequal market economy, or even structural disadvantage seemed to vanish. Now, any individual not able to find a job, was deemed solely responsible for that failure.
While the current Treasurer, Wayne Swan, said at the time that:
“We know the Government is determined to force changes on single parents and disability support pensioners….I believe the community will not accept any measures which place inappropriate obligations or lead to reduced payments for either of these two groups,”
the ALP has not hesitated to follow in Howard’s footsteps when it comes to welfare payments.
Despite being all about social inclusion, the current Federal Government has shown no willingness to engage in a broader conversation about the value of unpaid care work, despite recognising the gender inequalities for women working in the care sector.
So what has all this got to do with the current furore over forcing the remaining single parents onto Newstart when their youngest child turns eight? Firstly, the idea that parents are not working is bogus. Raising children is work, but it seems as though this is not the kind of work either major political party is willing to recognise. Secondly, single parents, who are mostly women, face huge challenges engaging with a labour market that is still structured around a single person, with no dependants. For parents with a child with a disability, these challenges are even greater. This is not a new idea.
The ACOSS submission to the ‘Allowance Adequacy’ Senate Enquiry outlines in stark detail the reality of the current welfare system. The Newstart allowance, with its multiple obligations and frequent breaches, leads to the highest rate of poverty and social exclusion. With more and more older people now on Newstart, the idea that this is some kind of luxurious holiday for young bludgers is simply not supported by any data.
Perhaps some better questions could be about how to ensure that employment is far more flexible and adaptive to workers outside the faux-traditional breadwinner model. Or whether a conversation about guaranteed adequate incomes/universal minimum wages could lead to better policy outcomes, rather than silly, political stunts about living on the dole for a week. And how do we value care work, equally with other economic data, and report on social wealth indicators as frequently as gold prices?