WELFARE REVIEW: News Weekly
Less welfare, fewer recipients?
, May 6, 2000
Federal Government plans to overhaul Australia's $50 billion social welfare system are drawing closer to fruition, following the release of the interim report of its Reference Group on Welfare Reform.
The 70-page report, Participation Support for a More Equitable Society, released in late March, outlines a "new direction" for Australian welfare, with its major aim being to quell the "growing reliance on income support [and its] negative consequences for many individuals and families and the system itself".
The report follows last year's furore involving the Family and Community Services Minister, Jocelyn Newman, over whether single mothers and disabled people would be forced back to work by activity tests and cuts to welfare support.
In announcing the welfare review, Senator Newman grabbed headlines by referring to Australia's "entrenched culture of welfare dependency", telling the National Press Club that "some parts of our welfare system still create work and savings disincentives. Too many payments are still focused on incapacity for work, rather than emphasising development of capacity."
At that time, the Federal Opposition claimed that Prime Minister had intervened to stop the release of a radical Cabinet discussion paper containing plans to cut welfare spending in the guise of reform.
When the government finally released its discussion paper, the Opposition claimed the paper had been stripped of its sting. The Melbourne Herald-Sun (November 10, 1999) reported that sweeping changes being considered by the government included stopping sole-parent payments when children turned 12, compelling single parents to take up part-time or voluntary work or study, and changing disability support.
The interim report, to be discussed at public hearings across the country ahead of the reference group's final report in July, advocates a shift in the social support system, placing "greater emphasis on ensuring that all Australians are encouraged and supported to participate, as fully as possible, in economic and social life".
It says at least one in seven Australian adults of workforce age rely on welfare support for most of their income, and long-term joblessness among families with children often leads to a cycle of welfare reliance by the entire family.
The report notes the numbers of couples with children seeking social security benefits has fallen, as the proportion of lone-parent families receiving benefits continues to rise.
While the interim report doesn't explicitly deal with the issue of requiring single parents and people with disabilities to undertake activity tests, Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) President Michael Raper says, "It's there in code."
"It fudges the whole issue of whether or not activity testing will be extended to sole parents and people with disabilities. However, it's very clear that that is what the report is actually about," he said.
It is not clear what work these people are expected to take up. The reference group made no reference to widely available figures that for every job vacancy in Australia, eight people are looking for work.
Monash University's Dr Bob Birrell says that one-third of Australian men in their prime income and family formation years (24-45 year olds) are not in full-time employment and earn less than $21,000 per year. Further, Dr Bob Gregory of Australian National University says the average male reaching workforce age will have earned $91,000 less in real terms by age 34, compared to young men entering the workforce 20 years ago. That's a good downpayment on a house.
It follows, too, that the much lower rate of marriage and higher rate of divorce for those men who are not working full-time, is a major contributor to the large increase in single parent families, driving up the nation's welfare bill.
The Australian Family Association National Secretary Bill Mueh-lenberg says there's no doubt the Australian welfare system needs reform-including disincentives to staying on welfare: "but if we're not taking into account families with children, it seems we will just end up with a worse problem. If we don't look after families, society suffers.
Mr Muehlenberg said there are deeper issues at stake in the welfare debate. "Governments look at economic problems, but the real problem is a crisis in values, and looking at moral issues is not something that governments find easy to do."
He said the denigration of marriage and the traditional family, along with the promotion of divorce and cohabitation, is a social problem with a legacy of welfare dependency, broken families, rising crime and drug use.
"There's no allowance for mothers with young children. Maybe it's a good thing that they have stayed home and looked after their children. [The report] is all about getting people into the workplace and not looking at the needs of the children," he said.