EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Helping the disabled
, July 26, 2003
Over a year ago, the Federal Budget announced a crackdown on disability benefits, as the Federal Government attempted to cut the massive growth in disability pensioners, the number of whom blew out from 312,000 in 1990 to 575,000 in 1999.
After attracting momentary headlines, little if anything seems to have been done to address the underlying problem, of which the figures are a symptom.
Several observers have noted that Australia has one of the highest rates of growth of disability pensioners among developed countries, and one of the lowest rates of employment for disability pensioners.Definitions
There are clearly problems of definition. Most comparable countries estimate the proportion of people with disabilities at around 4-5 per cent of the population. In contrast, a survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 1993 found that people with disabilities.was 3.1 million, representing 18 per cent of the country's total population.
The Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services recently pointed out that over the past 20 years, there has been a growth in the number of people with jobs (including part-time work) of about three million, but in the same period, the number of working-age Australians dependent on government support has more than doubled to 2.8 million.
This means that although the number of people in paid work has increased by around three million, the number of people seeking employment was far greater.
One of the major causes of the growth of welfare dependence in Australia is that governments have done little or nothing to encourage the expansion of Australia's productive primary and secondary industries, particularly small businesses and agriculture.
In fact, under the mantra of national competition policy, financial deregulation, consumer protection and free market policies, many small businesses have simply collapsed or been swallowed up by large corporations which make profits while cutting employment.
If Australia is to address the growing problem of welfare dependency and the underclass caused by chronic unemployment, there is no alternative to the adoption of policies directed to the expansion of Australian industry - as is done successfully in the United States, Western Europe and Japan.
The Australian Council of Social Service released a study showing that 20 per cent of the rise in disability beneficiaries was probably caused by government policy changes which closed off or restricted access to other social security payments, and 40 per cent was due to the increased difficulty faced by many jobless people with disabilities and related workforce barriers, such as age and limited skills, in securing jobs.Shuffling
In other words, as the Government has cut the number of people on unemployment benefits, it has caused an increase in the number on disability benefits.
In contrast to Australia - where little or nothing is done to help local businesses expand and thereby create more jobs - most other countries in the developed world pursue innovative policies to address this problem.
It is instructive to look at them. Spain is one of the poorer countries in Europe; but many years ago, its Government decided to give people with disabilities the exclusive right to sell tickets in the daily national lottery.
Today, tens of thousands of blind and other disabled people make a living selling lottery tickets, and the profits of the sale are poured back into the provision of specialised and preventive services, as well as educational, cultural and sporting programs for the disabled.
This is just part of the Spanish Government's effort to help those with disabilities. It offers generous subsidies to employers who take on disabled people, and substantial reductions in companies' contributions for their employees' social security payments, particularly for those over the age of 45.Paying employers
The strategy is clearly based on the principle that it is better to pay employers to put people into constructive work, than to pay people who are unemployed.
The other side of the equation is that Spain, like other countries in the European Community, offers substantial incentives to industry for investment purposes, thereby creating an environment in which there are real jobs.
Japan, for example, has a Law for Employment Promotion, which includes a quota system for the employment of disabled people.
Since 1998, enterprises with more than 55 employees are required to employ physically or intellectually disabled persons equivalent to 1.8 per cent of their workforce.
Employers who fail to reach the quota must pay a levy, which is then distributed among employers who exceed their quota. Interestingly, about half the physically and mentally disabled in Japan are employed (Japan Labor Bulletin
, June 1, 2003).
If Australia is to reduce the number of disability pensioners, it will have to provide incentives for Australian businesses and support the development of local industry.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council