Poor form on poverty

When it comes to rates of poverty among the unemployed, the Organisation of Economic and Co-operative Development currently lists Australia as the second-worst in the world. Poverty is an entrenching force, more difficult to climb out of the longer you remain in it. This is the plight of some of the most vulnerable groups in the country who are currently being targeted by a punitive welfare policy, all in the name of ‘saving money for the taxpayers’ or ‘stopping the rorters and bludgers’.

The negative attitude toward those on benefits, persistently propagated by the media, works as a smokescreen to conceal the fact that welfare payments are simply too low. According to the Australian Council Of Social Services, in 2012, 37 per cent of people on welfare payments in Australia lived below the poverty line, including 52 per cent of those on NewStart, 45 per cent of those receiving the Parenting Payment, 42 per cent of people on the Disability Support Pension, 24 per cent of those on Carer Payments, and 14 per cent of those on the Age Pension.

Additionally, 62 per cent of those below the poverty line relied on welfare as their main form of income. With an average payment of $300 a week, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify portraying welfare payments as an extravagant handout. Are we really meant to believe that people willingly embrace a life of poverty just to avoid gaining employment?

A study conducted by Anglicare puts the number of welfare recipients living below the poverty line at almost 70 per cent, with many relying on charities in order to survive. Simply put, welfare payments are unable to match the cost of living. Director of Advocacy and Research for Anglicare Sue King explained that those living alone, along with single parents and women over fifty, are the most at-risk groups, and are becoming increasingly reliant on charity services to meet their basic needs.

According to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), between 1 and 1.5 million people are living in poverty in Australia, ‘with little to no hope of getting out of that situation’. Considering that economic growth has been consistent in Australia for the past 24 years, the fault seems to lie with punitive welfare and employment policies. CEDA chief executive Stephen Martin last year argued that ‘big stick’ approaches simply do not help people get into employment, particularly if people are also struggling with securing stable housing or do not have the right skills to find gainful employment.

These situations are only compounded by the presence of mental illness. In these cases, poverty can be a cycle that incarcerates the sufferer in even greater humiliation and hopelessness, and one which is even more difficult to break. In 2009, mental health charity SANE Australia released research that showed that up to 96 per cent of mental illness sufferers were regularly forced to choose between health care requirements such as medication, and basic essentials such as food. Even with subsidised medications, the costs of treatment for those with mental illness on welfare takes up a significant percentage of their overall income. Having to choose whether you eat or remain medicated is a choice that no one should have to make. These situations just make it harder for people who already feel they are at a disadvantage in the job market because of the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

There is also a clear and defined link between higher incidences of mental health problems amongst those of lower socio-economic status. Although one doesn’t necessarily preclude the other, mental illness can help compound the already negative effects of poverty on the human psyche. Class divisions can manifest in a number of ways through mental illness, such as mood disorders being more prevalent among the economically disenfranchised.

As if being below the poverty line wasn’t enough of a disadvantage, we also establish punitive welfare policy that has a significant impact on the wellbeing of recipients. For example, the UK’s policy of work capacity assessments for those on disability payments (a policy that also exists in Australia) was found to have adverse effects on mental health, including an increase in suicides, mental health problems and prescriptions for anti-depressants. This is an unnecessarily degrading and humiliating process, applied with no regard to welfare recipients’ wellbeing. Would the government be willing to admit that policies like this actively harm citizens, and then justify it in the name of ‘fiscal responsibility’ with a straight face? Given how hard-nosed the Turnbull/Abbott government has been to other vulnerable groups, one has to stop and wonder.

The requirements for the disability pension have been recently tightened yet again, with currently less than 800,000 people nationally claiming the payment. The new restrictions mean that applicants can only have their disabilities verified by government-approved doctors. Claims of ‘doctor shopping’, in which claimants supposedly go to different medical centres in order to find a doctor willing to sign off on disability payments, is the justification for this new crackdown.

Apparently a second opinion for those who are suffering is a right reserved for those who have ongoing employment. As an individual who was told point blank by a GP that a month was plenty long enough for recovery from a major depressive illness, I sympathise with those who have had to visit several doctors to get their suffering taken seriously. This is without even considering the consequences said suffering may have on a person’s capacity to work in accordance with strict legislative guidelines.

Crackdowns like this help to explain why the Newstart Allowance has become a de facto payment for those unable to claim the Disability Support Pension (DSP). 25 per cent of those on Newstart payments have a disability, leaving them roughly $300 less a fortnight than if they were able to claim the DSP. Approval for the DSP fell from 64.5 per cent of applicants in 2008–09 to 36.9 per cent in 2015. The rhetoric of former Minister for Social Services Scott Morrison (as well as current Minister for Social Services Christian Porter) justifies the tightening of requirements as a way of discouraging ‘rorters’ from taking advantage of the system.

Yet there has also been little to no data presented in regards to the existence of a tangible amount of people ‘rorting’ or taking advantage of the DSP. The claims of trying to weed out people abusing the system are just rhetorical cover for a blatant attack on the poor. If anything, the current government’s policy of restriction on DSP payments is just another push of their neoliberal values, showing a willingness to sacrifice those who are most vulnerable in our society in the name of ‘fiscal responsibility’.

Our policies towards the unemployed and the working poor have completely failed them. There’s simply no evidence to suggest that a ‘cruel to be kind’ approach works, but there is evidence to suggest it does real, substantive harm. Our current system is not working and it is actively entrenching people into a cycle of poverty.

If you liked this article, please subscribe or donate.


Image: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Peter Thrupp

Peter Thrupp is a 28-year-old community organiser/activist and musician from Brisbane. On Twitter, he’s @PeterThrupp.

More by Peter Thrupp ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays