CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Welfare to work: serious changes needed
, April 9, 2005
There would appear to be something awfully awry with statistics that show a nation supposedly enjoying record low unemployment accompanied by a skills shortage "crisis" on the one hand, but which is still paying hand-outs to one in five working-aged citizens on the other.
But this is the case for schizophrenic Australia at the moment.
Unemployment is supposed to be at a 30-year low yet the number of people who are "disabled" has never been higher - more than 700,000 at the last count on the Disability Support Pension, and higher than those on unemployment benefits.
There are also more than 630,000 single parents (mostly mothers) who are on government benefits for an average length of 12 years.
And the total number of people on welfare (not including the old age pension) is around 2.7 million people - all during the longest boom Australia has known.
In fact, the statistics are not lying. What they are telling us is that there is a vast underclass in Australia - much bigger than anyone cares to admit. It is an underclass which has not enjoyed the benefits of the long boom and the associated housing bonanza and which has been absorbed into a dysfunctional welfare system.
The job placement system, which was privatised by the Howard Government, basically offloads those people who are simply too difficult to place. These include older, mostly male workers, single mothers, long-term unemployed and people with chronic physical or mental illnesses.
Obviously, many people on the disability pension have severe incapacities, but many more suffer depression, addictions and ailments which should not preclude some kind of work.
According to a recent OECD report poverty is growing faster in Australia than in most other developed countries.
The poorest fifth of the population earn only 1.6 per cent of total wages and salaries. Government handouts lift this to 7.6 per cent of disposable income. But the government handouts are part of the problem.
Single mothers prefer relative poverty to giving up the responsibility of caring for their children. People on the disability pension (which is slightly higher than the dole) fear losing their health care card providing them with cheap medicines, transport and other "perks".
Life may be miserable on the DSP, but many of these people fear that a job, even a part-time job will leave them worse off.
Employment Minister Kevin Andrews has proposed an overhaul of that system beginning with measures which will hopefully encourage tens of thousands of single parents, disabled pensioners and long-term unemployed back into some kind of work.
Under the Andrews Plan, government agencies will try to find ways to help people work part-time, or periodically as a means of getting them back in the work-force.Changed emphasis
The emphasis will switch from looking at peoples' "disabilities" to their ability to work. People will not be penalised for taking up a job, will be able to return to benefits if the job doesn't work out, and keep some of the welfare benefits even if they get a part-time job.
Mr Andrews is happy to have single mothers stay at home while their children are at pre-school, but wants to encourage them out of the poverty trap by taking up at least a part-time job by the time the children reach primary school.
When the children are in high school, single mothers should be looking for full-time work, according to the minister.
The Howard Government has allowed the system to drift for too long and, after nine years in office, cannot fall back to blaming the previous Keating Government.
Mr Andrews appears to be cutting through the usual superficial "bashing" of long-term unemployed, single mums and disability pensioners by recognising the fact that a huge percentage of these people actually would love to have some kind of job.
The system needs changing, and so do the attitudes of the long-term jobless. The Howard Government would do well to take up Mr Andrews proposals.